Sunday, October 17, 2010


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


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 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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

If and When

Getting sick here has never been an "if" question, but a "when?" Now, as I have a splitting headache and the beginnings of a sore throat (though possibly owing to my vain attempts to keep my classroom noise level down to a low roar) I fear the "when?" might be coming earlier than I expected. Two other teachers are already sick, and I know even my usually stalwart immune system won't be able to keep up for long as my students keep coming to my desk with runny noses.

Besides the threat of illness today was pretty good. We had a blast in 1st grade running around the room counting things and my second graders were particularly attentive today. If only the same could be said for 3rd grade who, try as I might, could not understand what "notes" are and how we use them in writing. As always, we will work on it again tomorrow.

When I finished teaching, I got to be the student for awhile. Nana and I were finally able to sync schedules and we continued our Georgian lessons. She has got to be one of the sweetest ladies I have ever met. She's always smiling at me and taking me by the hand to lead me from one thing to the next. Today she told me (actually she told Mariana, who translated) that she loves teaching me, as I am clever compared to all of her other students. I still maintain that it's only my age...I have more focus and desire to learn than her middle schoolers, which is something that's come about with age. In any event it made me happy to know that my eagerness to learn is matched by her willingness to teach me.

Now, I think some tea and cookies are just the ticket before an early bedtime!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Baby Steps

There are some days that I feel like I'm a good teacher. Nothing beats that thrill of knowing that I taught someone something today. My limited experience has shown me that there are those days (in teaching) that are the days that you get to see the baby steps that you are making and then there are the days, the painful days, where all you are doing is lifting that foot. I believe the technical term is "laying the groundwork" or something like that but regardless of what it's called the reality is that it's ridiculously frustrating. I feel a combination of a headache that comes with beating your head against the wall and the sore throat that comes with shouting at the aforementioned wall. (Note: I did not actually shout at the children, though my "angry eyes" made an appearance.)

Maybe it's because I started off this week excited that we seemed to be making progress. Maybe I jinxed myself by saying that I thought that my students seemed to be getting into a routine of understanding what I expected from them. Maybe it's the cold and rainy weather. Maybe it's because I had a whopping six lessons today. Whatever it was, it made for a looong day. I suppose in reflection it wasn't that bad but it certainly was challenging.

And the challenge isn't so much the teaching part. That, I believe, I do really well, especially one on one. It's the teaching of a class that's the challenge. I keep finding that when I pose a question to the class I have one or two students that always are the first to answer (correctly) and then the rest of the class simply chimes in behind. But when I question individual students they can't answer. So then I end up actively working to discourage the bright students from answering all the time so that the slower ones can catch up. Which then, of course, means that the better students are essentially being punished for being too smart as they are forced to be quiet and wait while their classmates are given the chance to work things out for themselves...because I could, of course just give the slower ones the answers so that everyone can move along at approximately the same pace, but they they don't actually learn anything. And that's not even factoring in their desires to work, their attention spans, ability (or lack thereof) to follow simple instructions, or their 6-8 year old tendencies to wiggle (or beat up, spit on, steal from or otherwise pester each other).

Last night Tamaz expressed, quite vehemently, his opinion that he thought my skills were being wasted teaching English to the younger classes. He firmly believes that native English speakers should only teach older students (like 7th grade and beyond) as they are old enough to notice and appreciate the depth of language that I have. I understood what he was saying, though respectfully attempted to disagree. I think that if these younger kids are continually exposed to a native English speaker throughout their early language development then they will have the advantage over the older kids who are being exposed for the first time now. The key to learning any language (I believe) is listening. Each day I learn new Georgian words and each day I pick up more in conversation. Do I know exactly what people are saying? No, but I can usually glean the gist based on keywords, tone of voice and context. These little kids are learning the same way. The difference between me and them is that I, at 26, possess more self-discipline than they do at 6. Tamaz still thought it was a waste.

I think it's a bit early for me to be getting frustrated, it's only my second full week so I've got to look at the bigger picture. Besides, apart from a few trouble makers, I really do like my students and I'm eager to see them succeed, one baby step at a time.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Tbilisi by Night

Beauty, in Tbilisi, appears in unexpected ways.

Just when I started to reconcile myself to the fact that I didn't choose the most beautiful city in the world to settle down in for a year, I find myself surprised and delighted by it this evening. I arrived home from school later than usual this evening, due to a rather unfruitful trip to the civil registrars office. (Nothing wrong on my end, thankfully, but it does mean a second visit at a later date). Leftovers never tasted so good. Eka really is an amazing cook...if I continue to eat like this I'm going to need to book an extra seat for the flight back. Today, at school, one of the teachers asked if I like Georgian food. I raved about how good it is and told her how sorry I feel for poor Aka, Nino's oldest brother. I can't imagine what it would be like to be in his shoes, growing up on this and now having to live on a US college's cafeteria food. He must be dying.

But I digress...after dinner Tamaz was making a run downtown and offered to take Nino and I along. We went to what I can only deem the sketchiest and dirtiest part of town I have yet seen. We were there once before and I had never been so happy to leave a place. Now returning, I was less than pleased. Thankfully our trip was short-lived and on our way home we took in a breathtaking view of Tbilisi by night. I suppose it's because the night cloaks the generally unassuming monotone blandness of the city and the array of white lights outline and illuminate its most beautiful features, that are swallowed up in the daylight; but Tbilisi is nothing short of a sparkling gem at night. Seeing our delight in the views by the river, Tamaz took us on an impromptu detour through Old Tbilisi. Of course, my camera was in my other bag but I'm not sure if I could have captured it. I tried to find an image online to post here but none really did justice to what I saw. The tree lined cobblestone streets of Old Tbilisi were glowing in the lamplight and the traditional balconies with their iron scrollwork looked like something from a fairy tale. We stopped by grandma JuJu's house, which is located on one of the oldest streets in Tbilisi. The houses there are clumped into blocks called Italian Gardens, because there is a central shared courtyard with trees and plants growing up through all the balconies. Nino and I walked down a dark alley that opened up into JuJu's courtyard and I felt as though I had stepped back in time. I doubt that I would have been so in love with it all had I seen it first in the day, but suddenly I found myself treading more carefully as if to keep myself from disturbing it's peaceful beauty.

This city is a fascinating blend of old and new, east and west, filth and beauty; but tonight, it was simply wondrous.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Yesterday, Tamaz, Eka, Nino and I went to Mtatsminda, Tbilisi's family amusement park. But before heading up the mountain we stopped off at Eka's godmother's house to pay them a visit. Sadly, a first visit wasn't enough for me to remember all their names but there was the grandmother, her daughter and her husband and their 3 year old son, George. (pronounced gee-or-gee) He was adorable with his mass of curly brown hair and big eyes. Nino informed me that George has two older sisters, one with a son older than him. I always think it's fun when that happens. :)

We were invited in and treated to coffee and tea, some grapes and a little snack, but this time there was an added (what some might call) bonus. George's mother pulled out of the cupboard a bottle of cognac and commenced to pour it out for the adults present. I was informed that this was 20 year old, good cognac and instructed to raise my glass in a toast. (Toasts by now have become quite familiar to me here. I read, before coming, that Georgians take toasting very seriously, but nothing could have prepared me for how true that is. They toast everything, and even if it has been toasted before in the evening, or in this case, afternoon, they toast it again!) In this case it wasn't the toast that concerned me, it was the fact that it was only 2:00 in the afternoon and I was being given cognac. Knowing Georgian hospitality I don't know why I thought I might be lucky enough to get away with only one small snifter. Even though it took me 4 sips to finish what everyone else had downed in a single go I was, of course, offered a second. Not wanting to be rude I finished it and in turn thought that I had fulfilled my obligation as a guest. Ha! Enter George's father. He was just returning home and as I hadn't met him yet we needed another toast, and consequently another glass. When he offered me another I had to protest with my very best Georgian, and hope that my family would bail me out on this one. Thankfully coffee came after all the cognac and I trusted that the caffeine would be able to counteract the soporific effects of hard liquor on my lightweight standing and carry me through the afternoon's amusements.

Soon after coffee we (Tamaz, Eka, Nino, George, George's father and me) all piled into the car and headed up the mountain. "Mta" is the word for mountain and "tsminda" means holy so literally Mtatsminda means "holy mountain." Nino might have explained to me why there is an amusement park on the top of Tbilisi's holy mountain but it eludes me at present. At any rate, the giant ferris wheel and satellite tower (which vaguely resembles the Eiffel Tower) at Mtatsminda can be seen from almost anywhere in the city below. So we drove up the mountain, one hairpin turn after another. For some reason Eka was driving, whose incredibly cautious driving technique would have been a reprieve from Tamaz's Formula 1 racing style except that Tamaz kept reaching across and grabbing the wheel to "help."

When we finally reached the top we peered out over the city. What a view! And the day was perfect! I like Tbilisi but there is no denying that it's a dirty city and it was such a pleasure to be up on the mountain, with carefully planted flower beds, beautiful trees and clear blue skies. We didn't do much. The men (including George) went off to a cafe and we women went off to get tickets to ride the ferris wheel and take pictures. Eka is afraid of heights so it was just Nino and I who went up in the ferris wheel. (Picture the London Eye and you'll have an idea of its size.) Nino amazes me sometimes. She's only 14 but how she conducts herself reminds me of just how much she is influenced by the culture that she has grown up in. Not that it's a bad thing, it's just that she makes me feel like the child when I'm with her instead of the adult. She is so self assured here, while everything is still so foreign to me. Like, I would have waited in the line that was forming for the ferris wheel even though I should have guessed that, like the lines on the road, lines here are only suggestions. So we skipped half the line and pushed between this crowd of 20-something guys to secure our place. And although I would have happily waited to see the incredible view that we got from inside our glass-enclosed box, there was a certain thrill that came with getting there the Georgian way.

After our descent we found the rest of the family and a ride for little George. After some difficulty in getting him on a ride because he was so small, we finally secured him a place on a car ride where he couldn't have been happier.

Wedding parties are a common sight at attractions and Mtatsminda was no exception. I think we must have seen at least 5 different ones while we were there. Tamaz and Eka keep telling me that they are going to find me a nice Georgian boy so I can stay here, well Tamaz saw fit to put this plan into action on our way out. He took my arm and began to announce, what I presume was my availability to the incoming wedding party. More than a few heads turned. Beating him with my camera produced no effect.

We stopped for khinkali (a meat filled, boiled dumpling) on the way back to George's house and ate dinner with them. After several more glasses of cognac were forced upon me and we had eaten our fill it was time to go home. I must feel at home here because I am always so happy when we get to retreat to our little flat. It's my favorite place in Tbilisi so far. Though Mtatsminda was pretty awesome!

First Impressions

As of today I have been here in Tbilisi for two whole weeks and I can't believe it's been that long already. Time seems to fly past and creep along at the same time.

For a brief recap of everything. I arrived three weeks ago, not knowing really what to expect. I left my mom at the airport in Philadelphia and after 14 hours in the air I arrived here. Sadly the same could not be said for my luggage. As far as I can make out, the second of my two bags missed the transfer in NYC. Though it eventually caught up with me, standing at that luggage belt waiting and waiting and seeing nothing more coming my way induced a mild sense of panic. It didn't help that I was on one side of the customs glass and my host family and the school director were on the other side waiting for me as I paced back and forth hoping that my bag would miraculously turn up. Try as I might, I greeted my new family, the school director and the vice principal in tears.

One might think that this all would seem to point to a grim beginning but the Lord is good and he provides abundantly. I have literally been adopted by my host family here. I can't imagine what I would do without them. Tamaz and Eka have taken me into their home with such open arms that I am daily in awe of them. Nino is my new "kid sister" and friend. I would be lost without her. Beka is my new brother. His English isn't very good, but if I speak slowly with him, he can get most of what I say.

As far as the school goes, I really like it. It's going to be hard work I can tell, but then I was looking for a challenge so I can't complain. Like my host family, they have opened up the floodgates to the seemingly unending Georgian hospitality and I find myself quite at home already. We shall see what the year brings.

I've started my Georgian lessons at the school! As of today I know 27 of the 33 letters in the Georgian alphabet and about as many words. But still I am starting to get the gist of conversations from the few words that I do know. I can't respond, but it's a start. My favorite time of the day is the time when Nana, Mariana, Valeri and I trot off down the hall to an empty classroom and delve into the next Georgian lesson. I feel like the 1st graders that I teach...sounding out each word is a struggle but it is so exhilarating to be reading words from a new alphabet!

Overall, so far so good. I am so thankful that I am here and I find myself eagerly anticipating what the year has in store.