Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Homecoming

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

Kidnapped!


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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Eats - Khachapuri

If there is one food in Georgia that will book you a one way ticket to an early heart attack my bet's on khachapuri. Of course, the stuff that's bad for you is always soooo good and this cheesy delight is no exception. The best part about khachapuri is that it comes in so many different varieties, so you can literally choose how you would like to clog your arteries.

Megrelian khachapuri is pretty much a cheese pizza that's been stuffed with cheese before being topped with even more cheese and then baked
in all it's cheesy goodness. The khachapuri that we make here at home is more like a grilled cheese but the bread is a buttery, flaky, phyllo like dough. (I think my blood pressure is rising as I sit here thinking about this...). Perhaps the definitive version is Adjarian khachapuri. Every other restaurant in town has a picture of this hanging in their front window. This one puts the cheese in a boat shaped bread where it is melted and served with a pat of butter and a raw egg. Then you get to mix it all together and eat it like fondue, ripping off pieces of bread from the edges and dipping them into the cheesy, gooey, goodness in the center of it all.

The defining feature of all khachapuri is the cheese itself. To my knowledge you can't get it anywhere but in Georgia and it's like no
cheese you've ever had. It's salty and crumbly like feta but full of little air bubbles. It took me awhile to get used to the flavor but now I can't have enough of it...which is probably a good thing because it makes an appearance at every meal.

Khachapuri...a heart attack on a plate, but irresitably good eats.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Good Eats - Mtsvadi

Nino informed me that the most Georgian food, after khinkali, is mtsvadi (მცვათი). Therefore my description of Georgian foods should have this dish in a high place of honor.

Like khinkali, mtsvadi is a dish for special occasions. I've only had it about three times myself so far. In essence it is barbecued pork minus the sauces. The pork is rubbed down with some salt, pepper and a few other spices and skewered with onions then placed over hot coals to roast for about 15 minutes. Then the meat slid off the skewer and onto a waiting plate before being brought to the table, hot and delicious. Seriously, you would not believe how quickly this gets gobbled up.

The last time I had mtsvadi it was at a supra (სუფრა), a celebratory traditional Georgian feast, for Eka's cousin's son and his new wife. Like my experience with khinkali we had eaten, what I erroneously assumed, to be the entire meal. I thought the fire in the fireplace was there to warm up the exceptionally cold room. While not entirely wrong, my assumption was not entirely right either. The fire's purpose was twofold; one, heat up the particularly thin skinned guests and two, make a nice bed of coals for the next round of food. Beka and Giorgi (the previously aforementioned son) were in charge of tending to the meat as it cooked, making sure that it was properly turned and of course performing the all important taste test. Then it was just a matter of bringing it from the fireplace to the table, thankfully just a few short feet. The overall combination of salt, pepper, onions and the smoke from the hot coals makes for a great flavor and some really good eats!

In other news today...a key strategy in fighting my otherwise losing caloric battle with Georgian food was discovered. The answer...Georgian dancing. A few of the teachers at school have been tossing around the idea in the break room for a few weeks and yesterday it came up again. I said that I would be really interested. Number one, I'd love a hobby outside of school; two, I'm always up for meeting new people; three, I sort of miss my English country dancing and four, see above. :)

For my first day I was both terrible and not so bad. Three years of dancing at Colonial Williamsburg definitely equipped me with the basics of foot positions and stepping patterns. I was actually amazed (and frankly delighted) that so many of the steps seemed to be variations on the setting and slipping steps I already know. Unfortunately for me Georgian dancing is equal parts feet and hand movements and needless to say it's sort of like patting your head and rubbing your belly. There were several times when the teacher just grabbed my arms and moved them for me. But for my first day I thought I wasn't a total trainwreck and I sure had a blast. It was a frantic race to keep up but I do think that I should get some sort of A for effort for being the only non-Georgian there. Coincidentally, I will know my numbers 1-8 really well when this is said and done. I'm looking forward to going back tomorrow (with my new dance shoes in tow)!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Good Eats - Khinkali

When thinking of how best to write about the amazing food that Georgia has to offer I consulted two people; my little "sister" and Georgian cuisine connoisseur, Nino and my personal hero (when it comes to food) and all around incomparable chef personality, Alton Brown. Nino informed me that I should begin my quest through the delights of Georgia's kitchens with khinkali. Alton inspired me to model my journey like an episode of Good Eats* (my all time favorite food show).

Our scene opens with a crowd of hungry Georgians, crowded around a table eating all sort of tasty dishes. An outsider might mistake all the food for the main course but those veterens at the table know the best is yet to come. Suddenly there comes from the kitchen a steaming plate and the guests hurry to clear a space on the table for the dish. Hands dive in to get the piping hot dumplings before they cool, or worse, disappear altogether. The silence that always accompanies great food falls over the table and all that can be heard is the slurps of those relishing the juices concealed within the perfectly pleated folds of dough. Within minutes the tray has been emptied and the only remnants that remain are the doughy stubs, the only evidence to the meal and a record counter for how many each person has devoured.


Such was the case with my first encounter with Khinkali (ხინკალი) the quintessentially Georgian meal. In fact, it is the national dish of Georgia. And what makes it even more unique is the fact that you can't just get it anywhere. Getting the proper proportion of dough for the shell and meat for the filling is not for the faint of heart. Then comes the art of assembling the khinkali. It is not just a simple matter of filling a dumpling with meat and pinching it shut. Like all great food, there is an element of presentation that only some have the patience (and talent) for. For that very reason, Eka doesn't make them but instead prefers to buy them. You can, of course get khinkali at any Georgian restaurant worth its salt, but there are also special take out locations that sell it, all you have to do is bring your pot from home and they will fill it for you.


Georgians can get pretty particular about their khinkali. Different regions specialize in different fillings, or rather how they spice the fillings. My first khinkali was on a trip out to Mskheta, which I later found out is particularly famous for their preparation of the dish. We stopped at a restaurant that served them by the trayful and they were delicious!


In its composition it doesn't differ much from dumplings, ravioli or even wontons. My first description placed it in the category of a giant meat filled pierogi (they are about the size of your fist). But, like all things Georgian, there is a certain aspect of the khinkali that sets it apart. When the khinkali is prepared the meat filling is uncooked and so when it is boiling the juices are trapped inside, which makes for a great time when you go to eat it. The first time I ate khinkali I made a huge mess. I took one bite and the juices went everywhere. It was then that Nino informed me that it's not just the preparation of the khinkali that's an art, so is the eating of it. With each bite that you take you must suck up the juices within so as not to make a mess. The sign of an accomplished khinkali eater is one that finishes without any drips on their plate. Good thing I'm such a quick study. My first time might have been a disaster but I was eating like a pro on my second go round. Heres a tip though, if you ever find yourself treated to khinkali don't give yourself away by digging in with a fork and knife, this is meant to be picked up and eaten with your hands.


Most Georgians also eat khinkali with a bit of black pepper poured on the outside of the dumpling. Personally I haven't found out the trick to eating khinkali without choking on the pepper because as I take a breath to drink up the juices I inevitably inhale the pepper. Needless to say the result is unpleasant. The tip of the khinkali, where the dough is twisted off, is too dense to be eaten but serves nicely as a badge of honor for how many you were able to down in a single serving. So far, I've only ever gotten up to 5.


So there you have it, khinkali, the keystone of Georgian cuisine and most definately...Good Eats.




*And now a note from our sponsors...If you have never seen Good Eats, check it out Monday through Friday at 7pm on Food Network! :)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Weighing In

I have never really been one to be too concerned about my body type. In fact, despite a few rogue pounds here and there I have always considered myself to be pretty fortunate. When I go clothes shopping I face relatively few hurdles. My legs are neither too long nor too short nor am I terribly disproportionate from top to bottom. I am, in short, fairly average. Resting content in that fact, I have never really strived to improve my figure with the latest beauty trends or health routines. Further knowing that I would never rise to any great heights (or even qualify for that matter) in either the sporting or modeling world I remained untroubled by my lackadaisical approach to fitness and eating habits.

That is until I came to Georgia.

I might be overreacting but when I can see a significant difference in how my clothes fit after only a month of living here I have begun to be quite concerned. Now I could look at this as an opportunity to outfit myself with a chic new European wardrobe. True. And there are certain merits to that idea, but I do feel it smacks of admitting defeat before a battle has been fought. To date there have been a few skirmishes. One afternoon, as Eka, Nino and I were baking cookies (can anyone see the warning signs here?) I pointed out what my Georgian diet was doing to me. So we all trekked out to the porch to weigh in on the medical scale (who doesn't have one of them just lying about?). I had to convert the measurement from kilos to pounds (thank you Google calculate) but before I even did that Eka was shaking her head and saying that it was a bit much. Great. Thanks! It's your irresistibly delicious food that's doing it!! We all had a good laugh about it but after the first weigh in I made a firm resolve to cut back and asked Eka and Nino to help me and stop feeding me so much. Riiiight.

Well, breakfast, lunch and dinner (and the second dinner that comes at around 9 pm) still come with four or five dishes to choose from and I find myself exerting all effort to say "no" to some of the best food I've ever had in an attempt to maintain my dignity, and my skirt size. Unfortunately, my self-discipline has always been a little lacking in stalwart resolve. So the battle continues.

All of this to say, I think I intend to begin a short series on Georgian food. It is, by far, the thing I can talk about, in Georgian, with the most confidence. I guess that says something about how important food is here as it comprises half of the vocabulary that I currently know. Besides that, it's honestly too good not to share!

For now, I'm just going to try not to be tempted by a late night trip to the kitchen...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Catching Up

So...I've been a bit lazy the past few weeks. A combination of work picking up and me not feeling particularly up to snuff has resulted in many evenings spent watching movies on my computer and not much else...

It's not that things haven't been going on...in fact I've been doing a whole lot, I just couldn't be bothered to actually write anything about it. Which, honestly makes an appalling statement of just how lazy I am, since typing requires so little
effort. In any event, a short list of the major things that have happened since I last picked up the proverbial pen.

Thursday, October 21 - I started private lessons with the wife of the man who runs the school that we currently share our building with. Her name is Fatma and she is Turkish. I'm looking forward to working with her, though am a bit overwhelmed at the number of hours she wants (or rather, her husband wants) in a week.

Friday, October 22 - Hearing that I was giving lessons to anoth
er teacher, the science teacher asked me if I would tutor his wife as well. I wouldn't have minded so much but the English word he chose when asking for it was n
ot the greatest..."My wife demands English lessons." I knew that wasn't exactly what he meant (at least I hope not ) but it didn't help my enthusiasm for the idea. Suddenly my schedule is filling up. Ugh. P.S. I'm exhausted.

Saturday/Sunday, October 23-24 - Did and accomplished absolutely nothing. Had a terrible headache on Saturday but rallied for Eka's birthday in the evening for which I appointed myself chief dishwasher. Why not? It's not like I can converse with anyone, so I might as well make myself useful. Plus I saw it as a sma
ll gift to Eka for everything that she does on
a daily basis. (No, she is not 5, but it was either that or 0 as they were the only Birthday candles in the drawer...)

Wednesday, October 27 - Was home sick. A combination of sick children and exhaustion finally combined forces and kept me in bed. I woke up with no voice and a killer headache. Thanks to Doctor Eka, some unidentified Russian tablets and vinegar and warm water, my voice and my health was ready enough to face Thursday!


Friday, October 29 - I got another reprieve in the form of a school concert. Usually my Friday's are crazy busy, with 6 lessons and then private lessons after. Well, (for some unknown reason) we gave a concert (in the middle of the fall semester and to no one in particular) on Friday afternoon. It was a bit of a rushed affair. We only started prepping the week before but we pulled it off. My first graders sang "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean," which was quite adorable. (The picture is of three 1st graders Yasin, Mesut and Baha, and one 3rd grader Saladin.) There was also some awesome Georgian dancing. Seriously watching them made me miss 18th century dancing. Not that they were similar in any way, but the way they are both such huge parts of their society is very similar. It never ceases to amaze me how proud Georgians are of anything Georgian and their dancing is just another facet of life. It's not dead either, it's alive and well and very cool for young people to do it. Which I think is awesome!

Sunday, October 31 - I did not celebrate Halloween in any way at all, though I enjoyed seeing everyone else,s pictures on Facebook. Maybe dressing in costume everyday for 4 years sort of settled that fix, who knows. I did laundry though and that's clothes related so it's got to count for something. I did venture out again with Sopho though. We went up to Old Tbilisi and climbed around the old castle that overlooks the old part of the city. We were seriously overdressed for the occasion. She was in a short jean skirt and I was in heals. Hardly proper attire for climbing 1000 year old ruins but hey, we had a grand time! Then we proceeded to walk all over the old part of town. We must have walked for miles around town, which is probably a good thing for all of the food that I've been eating...but that's the subject of another entry entirely.

Which brings me to today. Beka returned home from France early this morning...like 3 am early. I was going to go with the family to the airport to greet him and the rest of the triumphant Georgian rugby team who were the European Cup Champions!! Sadly I fell asleep in the 11th hour and was left behind. I did awake to hear them return at 4:30 am. As the door opened I heard them creep in and then Beka called out "Amy! Chai!" (A bit of an inside joke and a long story but suffice it to say that he jokingly demands me bring him tea every time I'm around.) The last thing I heard was a chorus of "Shhhh!!!" and giggles before I promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. :)

Though perhaps not the most introspective look on my life in the past few weeks, I do feel like I have at least catalogued it enough so that it does not slip by completely forgotten. ...Now I think it's time for a movie. :)






Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sameba


Last night Tamaz, Eka and I, along with Eka's friend Nino went to Sameba (Trinity Cathedral) in Old Tbilisi. The decision to go had stemmed from a lunchtime discussion in which they asked me if I was bored. I begrudgingly admitted that I was getting a little tired of just sitting around the house (which was, of course communicated by the only Georgian word I knew to convey that particular feeling...tsota...a little). And so it was decided that we should all go to Sameba that evening.


Nino was feeling sick all day so she stayed at home and as we took off I began to wonder how this excursion would go with just the three of us. My fears of what I would do if I had a question were soon put to rest when I saw that we were stopping to pick up Eka's friend, Nino. She's an English teacher at another school and so with my translator in tow, we were off.


The only downside of this outing was that Eka was getting another driving lesson in the process. I honestly think it would be better if Tamaz didn't bother. When he isn't grabbing the wheel, he's yelling and it's all very disconcerting. It reminds me of my first few times behind the wheel. My stomach was in knots the whole way there and back.


That being said the journey was well worth it when we arrived at our destination. Like everything else I've come across here, the Georgians are incredibly proud of their cathedral, though I was surprised to find out that it was only 6 years old. It sits perched atop a hill in the center of the city and is surrounded by beautiful grounds and fountains. It was such a peaceful enclave in the center of an otherwise busy and run down part of town. We passed through the main gate of the fortress like wall that surrounds it and strolled through the gardens before climbing the stairs that led to the cathedral itself.


It was stunning, especially at that time of the evening. When we went inside they were having Saturday night mass. It was unlike any mass I've ever seen. There were just groups of people crowding around priests, who were scattered randomly throughout the church. They were all performing different acts, some were blessing people with oil, others were praying, some were speaking and all the time I could hear chanting coming from somewhere within the cathedral. I don't know if it was the beginning, middle or end of service but I thought it was almost fitting that worship appeared as chaotic as the rest of life seems to be here in Tbilisi.


As we made our way out of the church through the silent corridors of the underground chapels I marveled at how remarkable and varied are the ways in which God's glory is proclaimed. Sometimes it's heralded from the hilltops from great cathedrals and sometimes its silently professed in prayer but his presence in all is undeniable.




Thursday, October 14, 2010

Language Barrier

While it seems strange to look at the calendar and realize that I've been here just a few days short of a month it seems so much longer, especially from a language standpoint. By this time in Italy I could form fairly coherent sentences in the present tense and was beginning to delve into communicating deeper thoughts. Though I try to keep telling myself that at least there I had the benefit of knowing enough of Spanish, its vocabulary and grammar, to give me a good head-start, it has provides little comfort.

I'm getting frustrated. True studying languages has always been sort of a love-hate relationship with me. More of a love the language, hate myself for not being able to pick it up easier. I remember having this problem the four years that I studied Spanish. My tenacity and hunger for new vocab and grammatical structures (a trait that endeared me to my teachers and won me a few class medals on the way) was matched by the frustration that came with my inability to speak fluently on my first try. Clearly I expected too much of myself then. I wish I could say, however, that wisdom and insight has come with age. When I went to Morocco for a month in college I jumped into Arabic with both feet, and though I was the best in the class there, I felt that I had failed because I couldn't communicate on even a basic level in the markets. The trend, of course, continued in Italy. While pleased with my self taught progress I was perturbed that I couldn't retain more, comprehend more, or communicate more.

When I think of being immersed in something, I think of a hot bath, pleasantly surrounded by bubbles and soothed by warm water; and in general I find being surrounded by something a good thing. It's comforting to be surrounded with love by my mom, and I love it when I'm surrounded by friends and enjoying a board game or a night at the movies. So, why then, do I feel so utterly cut off? Yes, I know that immersion is the best way to learn a language but what they never tell you is that you are going to feel so incredibly isolated until it all starts to make sense. I miss out on jokes, on stories, on interesting conversations, on boring conversations, in short on everything. And I've now been here long enough that no one wants to bother translating anything for me. In fact, I feel more and more like a shiny new toy that has lost some of its luster. Every time I'm around Tamaz I feel like he's just expecting me to be able to talk to him soon and is frankly getting bored waiting for me. Juju (Eka's mom) actually asked why I didn't know more Georgian yet the other night. She was only asking out of concern for me, but I understood where she was coming from. The worst part is that I feel like such a child. It's humbling and humiliating all at the same time. Everything has to be done for me, or explained to me.

And the truth is I want to be able to participate in things. I want to be able to express how I'm feeling other than "fine." I want to ask questions, I want to share stories, I want to be able to lounge around at night with the family to watch TV and understand what they're saying. And I am making progress, but Georgian just doesn't seem to stick in my head. The words are so different. It would be one thing if I was just trying to remember vocabulary, but I'm usually so focused on trying to negotiate how to get my mouth around four or five consonants in a row that I forget the actual word.

But until I can participate I just have to endure the isolating boredom. Yesterday I went with two other teachers to visit the family of one of my first graders. (It's a Georgian thing for class teachers to have these parent-teacher conferences at home at the beginning of the year.) Well the mom didn't speak any English so I had expressed my concerns for the girl to the other teachers and let them do all the talking. So I sat there for an hour and a half as they chatted. Now I have trouble sitting still in social gatherings as it is, an hour's conversation is about all I can handle, and that's when I can be actively involved. But even though I spent most of my time ardently listening to them (and successfully identifying the general topics they covered), I was bored. As time dragged on I felt myself zoning in and out more often...wondering if it would look bad if I kept eating the food on the table (for lack of anything else to do)...counting to 100 in Georgian...worrying that I wouldn't have correct change of the taxi...

No wonder they call it a barrier.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And just like that...

I wasn't feeling very well at school today, so I've been taking a lazy evening. I resurfaced to find the house abuzz with activity. I gave my best inquisitive look and was promptly informed that Beka was going to France...tonight! I'm quite proud that I was able to ascertain the specifics that he was invited to attend the European Rugby Championships by the Georgian National team, would be leaving at 2:30 am, and would be gone for 20 days...all of which was communicated in Georgian. :) (Yay for progress.) I further found out from Nino that all of this was arranged today. Nothing like the last minute for travel plans.


The house will certainly be quieter these next few weeks and I'll miss Beka around the house. He never says a whole lot to me. His English isn't great and he's kind of shy, but he is funny and we've struck up a nice sibling like friendship over the past few weeks. I hope we'll be able to watch some of his games on TV.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Firsts

This weekend saw a few firsts for me.


First (first), I went out to a public place without my family. I met up with my friend Sopho from school and we went shopping in the public market. Because I still haven't figured out all the names of places in the city (mostly because they are all quite long and end in variations of shvili or veli) I can't keep them all straight. But I recognized it as soon as we got there. It's the same market that I swore I never wanted to return to the first time I went. I don't know if it was the daylight or the friend to guide me through, but I felt myself warming to the place. For one thing she brought me deep into the market, further than I had gone before and I couldn't help but be astounded. The place had everything, literally any and everything that you could ever need all under one roof (I discovered the vaulted ceiling that covered the hundreds of individual stalls when on a whim, I looked up). As Sopho held me by the hand to lead me through I noted some distinct "departments" in the seemingly ramshackle chaos. There was an area for shoes and bags, one for clothes, one for undergarments of any kind, cleaning products, stationary, housewares, cosmetics, jewelry, electronics, they all had their own area. Of course, I forgot half of what I wanted to buy (due to my lack of a list) but I had a great time wandering around with Sopho. I think that we have a lot in common and am looking forward to getting to know her better this year.


Second (first), I had a new kind of khachapuri. This merits an explanation of what exactly khachapuri is. It is one of several uniquely Georgian foods and can best be described as Georgian cheesy bread. Previous to this weekend I had only tasted the most generic variety which has a special type of cheese (only found in Georgia) melted between layers of phyllo like dough. It's like a Georgian grilled cheese. Well, come to find out there are about 6 or so varieties of this basic staple, one of which, called adcharuli, I had on Sunday. After we left the market we took a walk and Sopho suggested we stop for khachapuri. When we got to the counter she asked if I had had the one with the egg yet. I hadn't so we ordered two. When it came a few minutes later I was mildly concerned for the resolve I had made to reduce my caloric intake (so I don't end up leaving here the size of a house). There was a boat shaped bread (no thicker than an inch) with a hollowed out shallow bowl in the middle where there floated a pat of butter and a raw egg on molten cheese. Sopho showed me how to properly stir all the ingredients together, in this apparently do it yourself khachapuri, so that I had a nice cheesy mixture. Then it was simply a matter of tearing off bread from the edges and dipping to eat...like fondue! As we sat there eating and talking I marveled, once more, at where the Lord has brought me and how He has made me feel so at home here.


My final first (at least for this weekend) was my venture onto the public transportation that Tbilisi has to offer. When I met up with Sopho we were going to take the metro, but her card didn't work so we had to catch a bus. Now I have ridden on many buses but Tbilisi's buses are not like anything I have ever seen. They are more like 15 passenger vans and so crammed with people that you wonder how anyone gets on or off. When we boarded ours it was empty but it quickly filled up. There was this one little boy who got on, his mother saw him safely on his way, who had a bag of fruit and every time we went around a corner they would all go tumbling out onto the floor. So we helped him scoop them up and prepared for the inevitable to happen again. Surprisingly the bus was quite fun. As was the taxi that I took to get home. Of course, Sopho did all of the negotiating and direction giving but as I took off I felt a fantastic sense of self-sufficiency. This was especially true as we drew closer to home and I sighted my street. I called out to the driver, "Ak, ak" (Here, here) and wonder of wonders he pulled over and let me out. Success! Now my goal is to get to a level of Georgian so that I can hail a cab on my own. I remain, ever hopeful.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Trouble with Tribbles


I have seen some strange things, but afternoon tea came with a surprise today. Eka and Tamaz had some guests over for a visit and they brought with them some little gifts. Tea, chocolates, a new shirt for Nino and some various other sundries. Not wanting to be rude I greeted them and then, not wanting to sit in on conversations that I was unable to take part in, I proceeded back to my room to work on lesson plans. Eka soon brought me a cup of tea, made from the delicious cherry tea that her friends had brought with them. A few minutes later she came back bearing a plate of goodies. I think the description of which is best summed up by the question and answer we exchanged when she put them down on my desk. I curiously asked "Es ra aris?" (What is that?) She laughed and answered, and what I caught was "Arvitsi. Es turkuli." (I don't know. It's Turkish.)

All I could think of as I looked at them were the cute little creatures Captain Kirk encountered on the Starship Enterprise...thankfully these didn't purr. If they looked strange just sitting there on the plate, they were even stranger to eat. I thought, surely the "fur" is just an outer coating, like hairy sprinkles or something, and there is something else inside. Not so. Yes, the entire thing was made of sugary fur. Once I bit into it, it lost its shape and just became a pile of fluffy filaments. Even after eating them, I'm still not sure what they were, but I can say one thing...they were tasty.