"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things
you didn't do than the things you did do; Explore. Dream. Discover." -Mark Twain

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Take My Life Extremely Seriously

It’s December 16, 2010, and I have finished—not altogether honestly (yes, I have ditched a few days of school) and not always a walk in the park (you bet, like the rest of my TLG friends, I’m slightly [re: completely, utterly, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here] overwhelmed at times)—my first semester living in a far, foreign, and frankly third-world(ish) country. As I time travel back through the last four months, it feels almost like I’ve just gotten here and curiously like I’ve been living here for years. Among the crazier things that I’ve experienced in Georgia is the time I killed, de-feathered, and subsequently eaten a turkey, the time I sat down on my bus back to my village next to a man with a surprisingly tame Maltese falcon perched on his wrist, and the time I was followed in my friend’s village for at least 2 kilometers by a pig the size of a baby hippopotamus. I have been to an “authentic Mexican” restaurant that did not have sour cream or guacamole. I have one class with eight boys all named Giorgi; I respectively call them G1, G2, G3, G4, and so on—and sadly, even with my genius numbering system there’s still some confusion when it comes down to whose turn it is to speak when. And, if I would have consumed a little more liquor or perhaps if they would have asked just one more time, I could have been the wife to one of the four eligible Georgian bachelors who has asked for my hand in marriage—all who deserve serious bonus points for being so annoyingly persistent and having sleeves exploding with persuasive tricks of all sorts.

Still, amidst what has grown to be what I like to call the ‘necessary craziness’ that my life can probably no longer do without, I feel accomplished. I’m not saying that my initial expectations of signing on with this particular teach abroad program were fulfilled, because they weren’t. I’m also not saying that I feel as if I made a true difference on any one individual since I’ve been here, because I’m not sure I have. And I’m not equating myself with Mother Teresa (though I should—living on my $250/month salary and handing out these damn good English skills of mine and my $80,000 teaching certification and correlating Bachelor’s degree for basically FREE).

I recently co-created an invitation for a Christmas party in Tbilisi. The idea was that all of the TLG teachers would all be able to get together for one last friendly hoorah before heading home for the holidays. Now pause please, and let me backtrack. Sometimes when I’m out with large numbers of my TLG colleagues, I feel like I’m back in college as there always seems to be the token person puking in the bathroom (or sometimes not quite making it there) and the circle of people bitching (yikes, profanity!) about the program we work for or about each other. No need to raise high the roof beam, carpenters (yes, I just shamelessly threw my J.D. Salinger reference in there!) I’m not likening myself to any diva or deity. In fact, I once drank so much awful wine on the way to Borjomi/Vardzia that I didn’t even make it to see Georgia’s exquisite cave cities—though the pictures that I happened to unknowingly snap make it easy for me to lie and say I ‘remember’ the trip in its entirety ;-) Not all large TLG gatherings unfold as such. I was recently at a TLG vs. United States Marines American Football Match and had a wicked good time with friends (see left) cheering on the sidelines. Still, kindly, I asked in the Christmas party invite to limit vomiting, fighting, and any other forms of inappropriateness. Whoops. Shouldn’t have asked for so much. These three simple wishes were the first three (of many to come) nails in my Almighty coffin. Some TLG teachers, upset at my obviously ridiculous requests, deemed me thereafter as someone who “takes herself far too seriously and actually believes [she] is making a difference in this country.” Having fallen into the dreaded milieu of these types of people, I was naturally offended(ish)…at first. After my moment of “Mommy, someone called me a bad name!” I came to this conclusion:

I take my life very, very seriously. And so far, it’s going pretty well for me.

So, in all seriousness, I think I’m doing some pretty powerful things in Georgia. I’m nowhere near satisfied—and, given my tendency to be highly overachieving and overly self-critical, I probably never will be. I do know what can be done with just a mustard seed though:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32)

How much of a difference have I actually made? Well, while I can’t be sure of everything, here are the things I am certain of:

When I stepped into my first classroom, I was handed a textbook I had never before seen and told to “teach this today!”

I used to only get yes/no responses from my English teachers.
Me- “I love your bag. Where’d you get it?”
Teacher- “Yes”
Me- “No, where?”
Teacher- Smiling, “Yes. Yes.”

My students would be asked to rise at the start of class and to regurgitate a paragraph or two from a text that was more than likely grammatically incorrect in the first place. When I would ask students to summarize what they had just recited, I’d get blank stares in return. Still, the students who read the paragraphs for memory with no mistakes but had not an inkling of what the text was about would get the high marks, while the students who read with poor fluency and pronunciation fall-ups but could impressively paraphrase his/her understanding of the text would receive low marks.

After tests, grades were read out loud and in front of the whole class.

In all of my classes, the attentive students would sit in the front row while the rest of the class would be allowed to talk, text message, and interrupt accordingly without being reprimanded. For at least the first two weeks, my teachers would have a handful of students from every class stand up just so she can tell me, publicly, which students were the “lazy” students who “don’t know anything.” Students with the best English skills would be called on while the rest, deemed incapable, would get comfortable with never participating.

Here’s what my classes look like today:

I always know what I am teaching and what instructional method I’m going to use at least one day in advance, and so do my cooperative co-teachers. Planning is not given as much thought or time as it should, but I’m proud that our level of preparedness for class sessions is always higher than impromptu. After talk-time rituals with my teachers, English is at least mutually comprehensible. My students don’t get points for the ability to memorize a text. They get points for translating, paraphrasing, and connecting historic texts to something they see in contemporary culture—and they’re damn good at it! Grades are private, and my students seem to be motivated to self-improve. I have helped my teachers to realize that sometimes it’s the “lazy” students who “don’t know anything” that we should be paying the most attention to and that it’s our job, as teachers of English, to make sure that the rich don’t stay rich while the poor stay poor. The first row of students are no longer the best and brightest, and they’re no longer the only ones who participate. At the end of every school day, there is a drawer of cell phones in the teacher’s lounge belonging to students who dare to text message in my classroom during my lesson; and, for the past three weeks, the drawer has been empty.

So, exactly how much of a difference have I made in Georgia since August 30, 2010? THAT much…that freaking much.

And it’s not even enough. Sometimes I feel so inadequate and like so much of a failed teaching professional that I wake up in the morning and can’t think of anything I’d rather do less than go to school. And sometimes, when the bad gets the worst of me, I then become guilty of actually staying in bed and not going to school.

Four months and four marriage proposals later, my epic return to the Windy City has arrived. I have ruined every pair of shoes I brought with (I’m talking huge, gaping holes in the soles) and I officially hate all twelve shirts I’ve been rotating (and wearing sometimes 3-4 days in a row). I am also quite positive that any medical professional would agree with my self-diagnosis of anxiety-induced insomnia. Yeah, that’s right. I WebMD’ed it! I am smelling, breathing, and thinking so much ‘Chicago’ that I can no longer sleep at night. The things running through my mind are: a certain bald guy, 24 hot and steamy hours in my luxurious bathroom with my waterfall showerhead and Aveda shampoo, one venti, non-fat, 5-shot gingerbread latte from my favorite Starbucks barista, and my blue-eyed purring machine who doubles as my feline and my favorite book: GATSBY!

One semester down, one to go! Mogvianebit gnakhavt! (See you soon!)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Getting Around in Georgia, and Why I Loathe Taxi Drivers...

Everyone is always asking me what I find interesting about Georgia; it’s on our monthly reports, our colleagues want to know, our families want to know, and even the occasional stranger will ask. There are many things I find interesting about Georgia, yet I usually don’t answer this question honestly because I have a sneaking suspicion that the people eliciting a response aren’t looking for a genuine answer, so I respond, “Qvelaperi. Dzalian momts’ons Sakartvelo” [Everything is interesting. I just love Georgia!] instead of truthfully listing the aspects I find especially peculiar about life in Georgia.

After quite an adventure with my friend Stephanie this past weekend, I’ve decided that traveling by taxi is a particular blog-worthy Georgian peculiarity. For tourists meandering the rather small city of Tbilisi, traveling by taxi is quite popular. It’s also assumed to be the ‘easy’ alternative for getting from point A to point B if you happen to be a tourist who does not speak Georgian—don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that taxi drivers speak English (because they most certainly don’t), but as a rule, one can usually travel anywhere in the city for no more than 5 lari (unless you are a tourist who has not gotten the memo to limit the amount of spoken English in the backseat, in which case the driver will most likely rip you off and charge you some ridiculous fare, well, because all English-speaking foreigners are rich—didn’t you know?!)

There are 5 popular ways to commute in the city:

1) Avtobusit [by bus]: Personally, I would consider this the ‘safest’ means of travel. You can pay 40 tetri (about 25 cents) to travel virtually anywhere in the city, and there are blue signs with a picture of a bus scattered along the main streets all over the city to indicate where to stand in order to catch one. Unless you are skilled in reading Georgian rather quickly, a newcomer might have to ask a local which bus to take in order to get to a specific street/location. Once you are familiar with which bus numbers go down which streets, it’s a simple means of travel. The schedule is also pretty reliable (except for #6, which is the bus I take to get to my friend Stephanie’s, and sometimes keeps me waiting anywhere between five minutes and one hour). It’s also important to know that the words ‘maximum capacity’ carry no weight in Georgia, and, depending on the time of day, traveling by bus might find you forced into the lap of some disgruntled stranger or pinned up against a pole while 15 hands compete for a place to hold in order to keep balance.

2) Marshrutkit [by marshrutka]: Definitely the fastest means of transport, and possibly the most dangerous as well, but nonetheless my favorite option. Marshrutkas are EVERYWHERE (except in Vake because it’s much too ‘posh’ for marshrutkas and except on Rustaveli Street, because apparently they were banned two years ago because the street was much too congested). I was informed that there are over 200 marshrutka routes in the city. There are no schedules for marshrutkas, and there is absolutely no way of knowing where they are headed unless you again, can read Georgian quickly, or have been told by some local Georgian which one to get on. There is a trick for beating the system, but it requires a day of doing nothing but standing on popular streets and writing down the numbers of marshrutkas that fly by (this is how I’ve figured it out, and I can proudly travel almost anywhere in the city by marshrutka these days). For those of you who I’ve lost completely, marshrutkas are small vans: usually rusty and rattling at every turn, equipped with about 15 seats (but usually packed with 25 people), and travel wicked fast. It’s an adventure you have to experience for yourself to believe!

3) Manqanit [by car]: Many Georgians have cars. After all, I’m sure that you can speed through any traffic signal, reverse for over 50 meters on a HIGHWAY if you realize you’re going in the wrong direction, and even hit a pedestrian, and STILL get your driver’s license here. I don’t travel often by car, unless someone from my village offers to give me a lift while I’m waiting for a bus, in which case I gladly brave the offer.

4) Metro [self explanatory…yes, the same as those in America]: Super easy! There are only two metro lines, so it won’t get you everywhere in the city, but it will get surely get you within walking distance from wherever you might need to go. None of the metro stops have maps of the routes written in English, but some of the nicer stations have the Georgian names written in roman letters, which makes it a lot easier for beginner travelers to get around. If you travel by metro, you’ll have the pleasure of taking quite possibly the longest and fastest moving escalators in the world. Special perk: On the way down, they also show music videos on flat screen TVs for the ride underground. On a lucky day, they play clips from Disney’s Oceans or Planet Earth ☺

5) And finally, taksit [by taxi/cab]: There are two types of cabs: cab companies, which will have a phone number written on the sides of the car, or what I like to call regular-drivers-who-will-stick-a-‘taxi’-sign-on-the-roof-and-call-themselves-taxi-drivers. We were advised during our initial orientation to take only taxis that are clearly employed by a company and to avoid these ‘self-employed’ taxis. Realistically though, there are much more of the latter and it’s sometimes just easier to flag down any taxi rather than calling and waiting for a ‘real’ taxi driver to find where you are in order to pick you up. It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s immediate.

And here’s what I find peculiar: No matter what kind of taxi you take, there’s a 90% chance that the driver will have absolutely no clue in the world where you want to go. So how might you fix this problem? Provide an exact address? You’d think yes…but no. If you think a street name and number will help a taxi driver take you to the exact place you’d like to be, you’re wrong. The incident that prompted me to write about the trouble of traveling by taxi was this: My friend Stephanie and I decide to meet our friends out at a bar/pub on Saturday night. It’s late, the buses have stopped running, and it’s too cold (re: we’re too lazy) to walk to the metro. We call our favorite taxi company (it’s our favorite because they are the only taxi company in Georgia operating with a meter—which means we never get ripped off no matter how much English we’re uttering in the backseat). We do a simple Google search to figure out the exact address of the Irish pub we’re headed to and tell Stephanie’s host family the name and address. Immediately, they bombard us with panicked curiosity, “Why do you want to go here? We don’t know this street. It must not be popular.” Something to keep in mind: If the family has not heard of the street, the taxi driver has also not heard of the street. The cab gets to her apartment and her host mother comes downstairs with us to apparently tell the taxi driver how to get to where we want to go. Having to give directions to a taxi driver…strange. Isn’t his only job to be able to take us to where we need to go? There’s some obvious confusion, but we drive off anyway. We’re headed in the right direction, so things are looking good—but I have my friend Stephanie ready to dial our friends (who are already at the bar) at the good chance that we might soon get lost. And of course, we do. The first sign that your cab driver has absolutely no idea where he is going is when he reduces his speed back down to the speed limit. The second is usually when he gets on his walkie-talkie to tell his taxi driver friends that he doesn’t know where to go. And the third (this is my personal favorite) is when he drives down an alley, lets out an angry sigh, puts the car in park, and lights a cigarette. Um…hello…why is the car stopped, why are we not at our destination, and why is the meter still running during your smoke break? But this is our cue: This is when we call our friends, have them put someone on the phone who works at the bar, and shove our phone in our taxi driver’s ear so that he can get more specific directions (since an address counts for nothing) of where this ‘strange’ bar that we want to go to is located (which turns out not to be strange and sketch at all, but quite the opposite and crowded with many paying patrons—I wonder how long it took everyone else to get there…) The whole time, I can’t help but to think: This is your JOB, man! You can travel from one end of the city to the other in 15 minutes! It can’t be that hard to learn all of the street names, since I’m sure you’ve been living here for oh…your entire life! If only I had a lari for every time I’ve had to put my phone up to my driver’s ear. So what do I find interesting about Georgia? Traveling by taxi. It’s definitely…interesting.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Death to Web 2.0, Interactive Whiteboards, and the Newly Required Technology Course for Pre-Service Undergraduate Teachers

Well, I gave in to “Carla, qkhava ginda?!” too late in the evening again—so here I am lying in my bed and staring at the clock on my mobile phone as today turns to tomorrow; in other words, I’m suffering from major insomnia and caffeine overload in Georgia. As I toss and turn in my sheets I’m thinking about a lot of things, but I’m mostly thinking about school and the rockstar lesson I’ve created for my 4th graders tomorrow using only five 8x10 sheets of blank white paper and a black magic marker. I’m starting to think that I think too much about planning lessons for school, and then I also think what a shame it was that I didn’t even think as much about planning for student teaching as I think about planning now—because it’s harder now. It was easy to throw together whole unit plans when I had everything and anything I wanted at my fingertips—and they were damn good unit plans, too! What makes a good lesson plan, anyway? And is planning necessary? I spent most of my undergrad listening to my professors emphasize the importance of preparation, so David Victor would certainly be disappointed if I couldn’t argue in favor of the tedious endeavor. So what are the necessary components?

Well, roughly, my lessons plans would go as follows:
1. Alignment with 1-3 Standards set by the State
2. Lesson Objectives
3. Concepts to be Learned
4. Springboard Motivator
5. Instructional Method/Procedure
6. Technologies Used
7. Evaluation and Follow-Up
8. Reflection

It’s really a great template, and I’ll still argue in favor of it…sans #6. I can (now regrettably) say that I completed student teaching having implemented some sort of technology every single day. In fact, not only did I become such a master at incorporating technology into my daily lessons, but I became so infatuated with using technology in the classroom that the idea became a vital argument in my philosophy of education and subsequent interview tangents. And here is where I will, for the first time in my life, hold Elmhurst College (and all current educational reforms which link the use of technology to good teaching) negatively accountable for struggling so much to teach English as a Foreign/Second Language in a developing country: Thanks for brainwashing me into a completely technologically dependent iTeacher (…and please note that I mean that in the most loving way possible, as I’m extremely grateful to my university and professors for molding me into quite a capable, knowledgeable, and gifted teaching professional).

I mean, what makes someone a good teacher? What do school superintendents and principals and department chairs and classroom teachers want to hear in an interview? That you’re good with technology? That you know how to create Podcasts? That your grammar lessons, which utilize the school’s interactive whiteboard, encourage student involvement and participation? Because I too think these abilities are important, but no longer find them essential. Has teaching become so much of a science that becoming technologically savvy trumps the learned ability to captivate an audience of learners using creative rhetoric? I fear that American education has become so information-overloaded and obsessed with technology that a serious system reboot is in order. Between politics and socioeconomics and geography and language and resources (or lack thereof) and a plethora of other possibly endless factors, it’s obvious that education is not universal. But the art of teaching should be, and ‘art’ is exactly what it is. Let me tell you something: teaching is not a science. One cannot read a manual on “How to Become a Good Teacher” and subsequently follow said steps to then become a good teacher. Likewise, being an expert at utilizing technology in the classroom does not equal proficient teaching. I’m not saying that technology doesn’t enhance learning, because it does—and that’s what it should be used for. But let’s face it, that’s not what pre-service teacher programs are preaching these days. What these programs are breeding are techno-experts, not expert teachers with the ability to enhance learning with technology. Because what happens when there is no technology? I mean sure, pre-service teachers are required to spend sufficient time observing and teaching in “diverse” settings, but even in the most “diverse” and “poverty-stricken” schools I spent time at in America, my biggest complaint was that the facilities maybe only had one interactive whiteboard in the whole school or that the textbooks were outdated.

Interactive whiteboards? Please. How about teaching in schools where children stash pieces of chalk the size of a thumb nail in their pockets like treasure because it’s so hard to come by? How about teaching in classrooms where the most technology to be found is sometimes the light bulb that dangles from a thin cord from the ceiling and only turns on every third day? I’m serious. I teach in this school. It’s November and I can see my own breath in each of my classrooms because it’s iceberg cold and I too stash miniscule pieces of chalk in my pockets.

I realize now that my audience has become multicultural and that I now have friends, family, Americans, and Georgians following my blog. I’ll preface here for my Georgian audience that I’m not being at all slanderous of Georgian education by pointing out the obviously ill equipped classrooms and complete lack of resources. Quite the opposite, actually. Teaching in Georgia has forced me to challenge my own beliefs regarding sound pedagogy versus the technological imperative. For example, two teachers are dropped into a mysterious classroom in some unknown place in the world and one classroom is fully equipped with all the innovative technologies and the other contains nothing but 30 desks arranged in rows and a shitty blackboard at the front of the room. The students fill up the room and the teacher is told to “teach” using only what has been provided. Who might you suspect will create the better lesson? Which set of students will be most engaged? While the answer might seem obvious, I’m going to boldly claim that after teaching for awhile in Georgia, I would claim the latter—and rightly so. If you are panicking and wondering how in the world it would be possible to create an impromptu lesson out of absolutely nothing, you’re not alone. I was quite embarrassed when I came to Georgia having recently been certified in teacher education and literally not knowing how to teach without any technology or available supplementary aides—well, because I was taught that good lessons should include ample technologies, supplementary material, visual aides, et cetera. I had to pause for a moment (and by ‘for a moment,’ I mean for a good week) to think about exactly what constitutes as good teaching and what exactly it is going to take to make this year a success for myself and the students before me each day. I panicked at first and even felt a bit helpless not being able to use technology as my crutch. Then I stopped complaining, if you can believe it, and started to become mindfully creative in my planning. What’s a better investment, anyway? Teacher A who has become a professional consumer of all things technology? Or Teacher B, who can be dropped into any school in any country with any group of pupils and be able to create magic from nothing but 30 desks arranged in rows and a shitty blackboard at the front of the room? You decide.

The idea of technological reliance as quite possibly the greatest detriment in 21st century education is a topic that deserves much more dialogue, and you can begin the conversation by reading this recent article at Slate.com:

Here’s to being mindfully creative,

Girl-Trying-to-Make-a-Real-Difference-Teaching-in-a-Developing-Nation ;)

P.S. If you’re looking for ways to purposefully engage and motivate students without simply filling up class time, I plan to jot down creative ways to do this without the use of technology and without having to dish out mass amounts of money to purchase additional supplies for each lesson. Check back for tips, tricks, and techniques for becoming cleverly resourceful in a realm with no resources!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Mivdivar Okrokanashi, HO?

Autumn has covered the mountains of Georgia! I’ve officially moved in with my new host family in Okrokana, Georgia, which is technically not Tbilisi but nonetheless a 5-15 minute ride down to the centre of the city (depending on which mode of transport I choose and how in/capable the driver is). Making the twisty, turny, and somewhat dangerous trek up the mountain to my new home makes me nervous for only a moment until I glance over the cliff at the wondrous view of all of Tbilisi below me. To my right and left, the foliage has begun to change colors and drop to the ground beneath, which sweetly reminds me of fall in Chicago.

My new home is near perfect. I’m greeted at the gates to my driveway by two large Dobermans and enter to a beautifully landscaped side yard equipped with outdoor dining furniture and an in-ground pool. I live with my artsy and cultured host mother, her parents, and her two children. My host brother is 25 and studied in New York City; he’s good to have around because not only is he extremely protective (not in an overbearing way), but he seems to know every person in the city. My host sister is 19 and is someone I know I’ll quickly develop a close relationship with; she’s studying drama at the university and I’m not merely boosting her confidence when I say that she is the most amazing aspiring singer and dancer I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Every evening, my host mother plays the piano and the two of them lull me into true relaxation as they play and sing the most beautiful duets. They gave me permission to videotape, so you can look forward to getting a taste of what I am fortunate to hear on a daily basis. Everyone in the family (even my Soviet-raised host grandparents) speaks English—and when communication fails, they’re helping me with my Georgian, which is thankfully sure to improve even in such an ambitiously studious and multi-lingual family.

My new school is right up the road and is populated by 200 smiling faces. I’m working with two young English teachers and am still working out my schedule. After school, I usually hop on the bus down Rustaveli and find myself in a quaint little coffee shop. It’s funny because I almost always am running into another TLG teacher; we’ve invaded all of the English-speaking coffee shops ;) My favorite is Prospero’s, which is a bookstore/coffee shop combo and serves spectacular cappuccinos and omelette sandwiches. My mouth is watering as I type!

Before I moved to Okrokana, I had just gotten used to taking marshrutkas to get around the city. Since marshrutkas don’t go up to where I’m living now, I’ll take the bus into the centre and then hop on a marshrutka or take the metro if I need to go anywhere that’s not walking distance. There’s only one bus that goes up to my village, so I thought I was wholly capable of traveling solo…note the key italicized word.

I went on a photo hunt with my friend Raughley after dark the other night. It’s a goal of mine to visit all of the beautiful sites and cathedrals of Tbilisi at multiple hours of the day in order to capture the best photos. We walked up to Parliament and up further to Sameba (“Holy Trinity” in English) before looping back down for gelato and a small walk through Old Tbilisi. We made it to Freedom Square where my bus had been dropping me off. #90 pulls up and I step on the bus to consult the driver, “Mivdivar Okrokanashi, ho?” and he responded by motioning me on the bus with his right hand and quickly started to move again. I gave Raughley a hurried goodbye and took my seat.

I have now been in Tbilisi long enough to know that the bus is surely heading in the opposite direction of my mountainside residence, so I take out my phone to text Nino (as I often do when I find myself in trouble…poor Nino!)

“Umm, do buses usually make a loop or do they only travel from point A to point B?” –Me

I didn’t get a response from her right away and, since I am not at all fearful of getting lost, decided to sit tight and enjoy the ride. I mean, since #90 is definitely my bus, I might as well see what the entire route is, right? ;) Sure enough, the bus stops at some sketch bus stop on the other end of the city and the bus driver tells me to get off. It’s not pretty late at night, so I call Nino again.

“So…I’m lost!” –Me

“Carla, I’ll kill you! Put someone on the phone, and not a man!” –Nino

Nino does her Georgian thing, I’m handed back the phone, and she tells me what to do. 30 minutes later, I’m on a bus (#90 again, but this time heading in the right direction!) I’m sitting on the bus now wondering about my previous rendezvous and whether I had perhaps spoken incorrectly (as I sometimes do) when I asked the bus driver if he was headed toward Okrokana—but NO! Me vitsi qartuli…I know Georgian! And I damn well spoke correctly. Newsflash, Mr. Bus Driver: Motioning someone onto a bus with your hand—even if they are a foreigner—means “YES, GET ON!” in any language!

I’ll wrap it up for now. I’m heading on a TLG-sponsored free excursion to Kakheti this Saturday to make wine and churchkhela. It’s also fashion week in Tbilisi, and since my host mother knows the designer of shoes for the events, she’s taking me to the premier event on Sunday evening…very posh. ;)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On!

Yep, that’s right! I’m bringing back the infamous slogan from Teaching in London 2K10. A lot has happened since I’ve blogged last—and you’ll probably be itching to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth after I admit that most of the juicy details of the past week or so won’t ever go public. What do you think I’m running here? A tabloid? ;)

Anyway, I’ve once again packed up my life (all three bags and 150 pounds of it) and made the eastward journey from Zugdidi to Tbilisi, where I’ll be living and teaching permanently until the 30th of June. If I could bottle up my positive energy and see it on eBay, I’d be a rich woman!

Tbilisi is the “Chicago” of Georgia—so you can imagine why there’s a newfound freshness and comfort in my web voice. Top three reasons to be excited about living in Tbilsi: 1) Yoga classes, 2) European coffee, and 3) pasteurized skim milk.

I am writing from temporary new home in Sanzona, which is merely the name of one of the districts in Tbilisi. I haven’t been here long enough to figure out how many districts there are in this city, but I’ll dedicate an afternoon to getting on and off buses and marshrutkas to figure that out whilst I await my new school placement. I’m living with my dear friend Tatia for now—and her home is so antique and extraordinary that it deserves its own model in the Thorne Miniature Room at the Art Institute of Chicago. The whole place is also coloured with the laughter, singing, and consistent chatter of the most beautiful two year old in all of Georgia!

Check back for more updates on the move to my new (permanent) host family and school placement!

“I will walk by faith even when I cannot see, because this broken road prepares Your will for me. Help me to rid my endless fears; You’ve been so faithful for all of my years. With one breath You let me live; Your grace covers all I do. So I will walk by faith, even when I cannot see. Well I’m broken, but I still see Your face. Well You’ve spoken, pouring Your words of grace” –Jeremy Camp

Monday, October 4, 2010

Of Men and Mice

Among the more comical things in Georgia are the frequent spelling issues (these are more than errors—they are serious, I-can’t-even-believe-my-eyes, ISSUES!)

My friend Ilana was recently given a book of short novels as a gift from her host family. The first: John Steinbeck’s famous Of Men and Mice…not to be confused with Of Mice and Men. I mean, I give the Georgians logical credit for this one, though, for putting men hierarchically above mice. Nice work!

I also rest assured that if teaching doesn’t work out, I can always count on being employed for life editing English restaurant menus—saving people one menu at a time from ordering and eating/drinking things like: Italian pozta and juce cold.

And, if you ever have a hard time deciphering any of these words, just look them up in the dictTONary...not to be mistaken for dictionary—which you can pick up at the local English bookstore. ;)

And that's all for today, kids!
Grammar Girl

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Daydream Worth Sharing

I am a product of an ambitious generation. I grew up in a community where I am known and accepted as a self-motivated, highly persistent, courageously independent, over-achieving woman of what few envious ones might call the perfect combination of dangerously energetic and appropriately collegial. And yes, I am unashamedly aware how smug and righteous my self-definition appears to an audience of strangers! I’m unapologetic, however, simply because creating a persona of this kind is specifically what motivates my actions and ensures my success in any endeavor. Or, to be more specific, and to strategically comment on how nonchalantly and unexpectedly the present perfect tense segues to past simple, it is what motivat-ed my actions and ensur-ed my success in any endeavor. I believe this self-characterization to be absolutely necessary in the initial pages of my travelogue in order to give a full portrait and latter comparison of the girl who excitedly and spontaneously packed up her home in Chicago for an adventure abroad, to the woman who is now residing in an addictively chaotic city situated in the northwest mountains of Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the southern state!)

I would consider myself an avid viewer of the Discovery Channel, and with the admittance of my guilty pleasure, I can confidently say that I’m aware of exactly what it takes to “make it out alive” in a very wild world. I will liken some initial survival tactics to the relationship between an adult lion and her cub using one word, and a word I am not particularly fond of: reliance. Helpless and ill-equipped with the necessary defense mechanisms, the baby cub is picked up by the mother’s razor sharp teeth and thrown into an empty and unknown field left to blindly make the transition from innocence to experience with the knowledge of nothing but the cub’s existence as…a cub. I, too, was taken from my maternal TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) staff members and placed in the center of an unknown and surprisingly frightening environment. The split frame of my personal documentary is still so vivid that even this daydream makes me uneasy. One minute I’m in a dorm-like hostel with English-speaking strangers bonding over complaints of Turkish toilets and over-salted meats, and in the next moment I seem to have disappeared and teleported, if you will, to a broken cobblestone street corner where a man is publicly purchasing inappropriate magazines of scantily clad American women from a street vendor and a five-year old girl brushes up against me and continues boldly ahead carrying a silver sequin hand purse and a pack of Marlboro Lights. And in this moment I am frozen and wear a crown of observant eyes so as to catch what strange visions continue before, behind, and beside me.

“Come on, Carla. Move!” A friend’s hand pats my shoulder and I am briefly startled as I wake to the reality of my surroundings. I’m dressed to impress in my black Cassidy Fit trousers from The Limited, a burgundy scoop neck blouse, and black suede loafers with stitched gold daisies at the toe. Naturally, I’m sweating profusely. I’m convinced that the sun on this particular afternoon, specifically to smite me, is hotter than it’s been in years—and my nerves are pulsating at speeds that even my mastered deep-breathing techniques cannot tame. It’s a Friday afternoon around 2:00 and we have found out less than 24 hours ago that we will be placed in the Samegrelo Region of Georgia in the city of Zugdidi. I am with eight other newly acquired friends who are also employed by TLG. We have just made the trek from our training site (better known as “summer camp”) in Kutaisi and are being filed into our Resource Center in Zugdidi for a meet and greet with our soon-to-be host families. At this point, we have no idea who our families are. So we are paraded inside and up the stairs as strange, smiling faces gape at us as if we were the walking, breathing equivalents of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians. We enter at last a large room with couches (and more foreigners) and are asked to “relax” for a moment before our names and corresponding family names are read aloud—as if the suspense of meeting our new pseudo-relatives allowed for any relaxation! A few moments pass and we are called out, one-by-one, and asked to stand up in order for our new host families to identify us and approach for an awkward initial welcome. So I’m with my host family now and we exit the building, strategically arrange my suitcases into the back of their Mitsubishi SUV, and pull away for a day of visiting my school, the houses of various family members, and the Black Sea. And in this moment I am once again a cub—sitting helpless in a strange field of foreign faces—needing to begrudgingly rely on the immeasurable and intangible concept of time to get me out of the dark and into the sun.

Some consider reliance synonymous with dependence, but I prefer to scratch it out and replace it with “weakness”—because whom in a product of this seemingly indefinable and complex generation of adventure-seeking and highly determined folk actually enjoy being reliant or dependent on someone or something else to survive anyway? In fact, we are so independent and abhor the notion of giving credit or showing gratitude to anyone who may have helped in the process of getting ahead so much so that it took Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance to legitimatize the concept of having the capacity to manage one's own affairs, make one's own judgments, and provide for oneself. And with that my daydream concludes, and I will now make it my personal mission to be just that: self-reliant in Georgia, and in charge of my own emotions. I am dedicating the remainder of this week and weekend to learning at least five new things, meeting five new local people, eating five new foods (if my stomach will allow) and assuring myself that there are so very much more than five reasons to be happy and live happy in the grandeur of the Caucusus.

Boredom? What's that?

I might be in a foreign country feeling quite alone at times, but not once since my arrival in Georgia have I been bored (except for that once when I confused being tired from being constantly busy with boredom—but that doesn’t count!)

There is always, always, always something to do in Georgia. Most of the time I’m with my family, but I also get many other invitations (i.e. hiking 8 kilometers with students on the weekends, which apparently, though unacceptable to hangout with students on weekends in America, is totally acceptable in Georgia—and even rude if you decline!) So that’s how I spent my Sunday morning: hungover and up at an unimaginable early hour to hike to a fort near the Georgian/Abkhazian border with 20 small and overly hyper children.

Side note: When you are told you are going for a hike, what do you wear? I showed up in sport short, and old T, and my best tennis shoes, but my students showed up in flats, jeans, jewelry, and the whole spectrum of glamour. Needless to say, 20 small and overly hyper children turned into 20 small and overly hyper children with non-stop complaints of aching feet and I-can’t-go-any-further sobs. I lost track of time, but over an hour later we made it to our destination. My derelict students somehow recharged and sprinted to the top of the fort where they proceeded to scare the (insert appropriate profanity here) out of me slipping on rocks, swinging on probably rotting branches, and scaling 30-foot high cliffs. And there I was, looking at them from below, having a private fight with myself for not having looked up “BE CAREFUL” and “COME DOWN FROM THERE IMMEDIATELY” in Georgian prior to our little weekend field trip. One of my students came down with a bleeding burn down his back and the other with a cut to the back of his knee that I surely would have going to the ER to repair, but only in Georgia could we just slop some vodka (courtesy of the children) to the open wounds and continue on with the afternoon.

I made it back, took a nap, and got ready for my host cousin’s birthday party to be held at a local restaurant I’ve been to several times. Only a video posted to Facebook can capture what kind of experience this was, so be sure to check it out once I’ve posted it.

I missed school today because I have the wretched Georgian stomach plague yet again (curse you!) and my host mother has made me lobiani (a BEAN DISH) for dinner; I’m still unsure of how this will cure my stomach issues, but I’ll go with it—since I’ve overused davnakhdi (I’m full) and ar minda modloba (I don’t want anymore, thank you!) too much this week.

I have a 3-day school week now, since I’ll be making the trek to Tbilisi on Thursday after school as long as my stomach troubles (fingers crossed) leave my body before then. My apologies for not having posted as often as you would probably enjoy. I’m still trying to pick and choose from my personal journal which aspects of “life at school” I’d like to share with you all. ;)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Matter Where You Are in the World, Laughter Always Sounds the Same

It’s funny how life unravels and uncoils to show the most sacred and beautiful aspects of one’s being even in seemingly dark and hopeless moments. I’ve been in Georgia for about two weeks now and already I’ve learned more about myself and about life than I ever thought possible. I’m sitting here alone (ahh, bliss!) in my dimly lit bedroom looking out the balcony at my laundry blowing in the wind and the mountains spying on me from just a few kilometers away. The rooster that wakes me up at 5:00AM sharp has meandered his way to the middle of the street four floors below, my siblings are loudly finishing their homework in the room adjacent to mine, and I’ve been smelling broiling meat from the kitchen that has been pointing every other thought of mine to vegetarianism.

Amidst my many pleas to the Lord and my frequent tears shed to close friends, I’m feeling a lot of heavy anxiety, frustration, stress, and worry. And let me tell you—it’s quite possible to feel all of these unpleasant emotions at the very same time. The heavy rain and unwanted thunderstorms have been complimenting my mood for the past three days.

Now pause. Add bright lights. Add cheerful music. Add my smiley little pupils. Add laughter. And then add comfort—that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter what languages are spoken and not understood, laughter always sounds the same and can always be shared.

I started teaching today at 6th school in Zugdidi, which is roughly 4 kilometers from my house (I’m getting better at this whole kilometers thing), and I have a whole lot to look forward to. I’m teaching with three English teachers and my schedule is hard to explain because it’s never been the same. Go figure ;) My students love to hear my voice and so I’ve been spending the first couple of lessons on pronunciation and reading. I’m teaching all levels, so my lessons are quite different for each form. Two of my teachers give me full reign, and the third will be more difficult. All I have to say is…wait for it...THANK GOD FOR ENGLISH 416 and for all of the phonemic transcription I learned at Elmhurst College, because I have to transcribe virtually every word I speak on the blackboard. The ‘th’ sound and differentiating between ‘f’ and ‘v’ will surely be the most difficult molehill to conquer, but hopefully my model of the human mouth and pointing at where the tongue should hit the lips/teeth will help. My students think I’m so silly, but we have a riot laughing with each other even when I’m probably making no sense. Who knew I’d ever be teaching this stuff? Cheers for a new challenge! More on the progression of my lessons will be posted in the later weeks.

This past weekend I was able to travel to Batumi with friends Yevgeniy, Ilana, and Adam. Our new friend Katuna got us in touch with a friend of a friend of a friend who helped us rent in flat for the weekend—which totally makes us true Georgians since we went through the ‘challenges’ (as Nino would say) of renting instead of taking the smoother and perhaps smarter option of renting a hotel like tourists would. The process of renting a flat was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that. Our water stopped working five minutes after we arrived and we had some extreme bad luck, but the weekend was nonetheless fabulous—and it was great to meet up with some of the other TLG volunteers and to compare experiences. I returned to Zugdidi Sunday evening to discover that a supra was in order at my grandmother’s home to celebrate the birthday of my host father and the 15th wedding anniversary of him and my host mother. The night ended with the family standing on chairs and downing shots of various hard liquors to some of the most poetic toasts imaginable. Kudos to all Georgians for always having the most perfect and thoughtful words to share at the dinner table (though they’re always being translated from Georgian to Russian to English and more than likely lose some of the artistry and eloquence in the process). Yev and I then got…kidnapped…and taken to a teenage summer camp for an experience which I can only sum up in four words: Georgian Backstreet Boys Concert! I returned to my flat dzalien daghlili (extremely, extremely, extremely tired) and thankful that hangovers at school are perfectly acceptable.

More to look forward to: I am traveling to Tbilisi in two weeks and can absolutely not wait to visit Stephanie, Terri, Nino, Tatia, and Shorena! I think we’ll stick with a hotel this time though ;-)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Supra’ed by 14-Year-Olds

What I am about to say might not be appropriate, but it was such an absurd vision that I can’t resist blogging about my rendezvous. But first I’ll backtrack to last evening. Yesterday I was bedridden with a 102° fever. I was taking all sorts of medication all day, but couldn’t shake the fever. I ended up going to the hospital (which seems like a huge deal and made me bawl my eyes out since I would normally never go to the hospital for a fever—but my host family felt it necessary) to get an IV to bring my body temperature back down. And let me tell you that Georgian hospitals are…and experience. I’ll leave it at that. I’m home now, on 5 different prescription medications, and on a strictly boiled potatoes and hot tea diet. I’m feeling almost 100% better today, so I’ll be starting at school tomorrow morning to meet my students and the three “English” teachers I’ll be working with. I use quotations because it turns out that the English teachers don’t speak much English. I’ll dedicate an entire blog posting to my experiences in the classroom once I’ve spent some more time in the school.

Today I layed around the house for awhile, ate potatoes and more potatoes, and then went with my host sister to a restaurant where she was meeting her friends from school. I got there and immediately realized I would need a companion, so I called Yev. To give you a sense of the scene, I can say that the restaurant was three floors and used to be a nightclub but it now apparently the local hangout for middle school students. I felt like a chaperone at a teenage dance. When Yevgeniy arrived, we were asked by a fellow 14-year-old boy to join him and his friends for a supra. Supras, if I haven’t mentioned, are huge feasts/parties, and we basically attend a supra per night; Georgians like to party! So we get to the table with our middle school friends where the proceeded to order 5 bottles of vodka, tons of beer, and various sodas. These children were downing shots and smoking like crazy and ordering mass amounts of food. I wish I had brought my video camera to share the madness with ya’ll. I couldn’t stop laughing at how surreal the whole thing was. I guess that’s what happens in a country with no drinking age. Yevgeniy grew up in Russia and noted that even though there is also no drinking age over there, it’s strange to see kids ordering alcohol in abundance in a public restaurant. Leave it to the Georgians ;) Yev and I left the supra to go grab some coffee at a cafĂ© down the street and I saw a young girl, about 5-6, walking alone and carrying a pack of cigs. The sights never seize to amaze me.

That’s all for today. Something to look forward to: Some friends and I are going to take a marshutka to Batumi this weekend, get a hotel, and enjoy some quality American time together. It’ll be my first trip away from my host family. I wonder how many calls I’ll get per day from them checking up on my whereabouts and wellbeing ;)

Mshvidoba! (Peace!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Qkvelaperi Kargad Iqneba

Meaning: Everything will be okay. I’ll do my best to try to explain. I am no doubt having an amazingly fabulous life-changing experience here. I am, however, in the second stage of culture shock. We were prepped on culture shock in our initial training in Kutaisi, but I didn’t realize until my second night in Zugdidi how very real this notion is.

Stage 1) Initial Euphoria (Honeymoon Period) - Anything new is intriguing and exciting! For all of us, this was the energy and excitement for our new journey prior to leaving the country. When we got to training in Kutaisi and complained about having to use squatters to go to the bathroom and losing water and power on a daily basis, Nino warned us that while we thought this was culture shock—we had NO idea what was to come on the day we had to leave Kutaisi for our host families. You see, most of the volunteer teachers are similar. We’re extroverted and adventure-seeking. How do I know? Because we all left behind our friends, family, and life behind to experience something new and foreign. While not many of us came knowing others, I can assume that (much like myself) we are all easy to make friends. Well, because it’s easy to make friends from strangers when the strangers you meet speak the same language.

Stage 2) Irritation and Hostility (Culture Shock) – A participant feels homesick and has a negative attitude towards the host culture. And here I am in Georgia, waking up every day to a family talking in the living room in a tongue I cannot understand and sitting at a dinner table wishing desperately to add to conversation I cannot easily join. I’m in my dark place. I do not want to come home, and while I sink into my bed at night—my head heavy and my eyes red and swelled with tears—I am still assured that this too shall pass. And so I apologize for taking a break for a few days from blogging. As I was walking through the botanical garden the other night wearing fear like a scarlett letter, I was thinking what a shame it would be that I would have to lie to all of my readers about how perfect everything is when in reality I feel so far from myself. And so I thought back to my purpose for creating a blog in the first place, which is to share this year—my real and sometimes scary journey—with the people who mean so very much to me. So that’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’m in my dark place: lonely, terrified, and frustrated that I can’t communicate to the people around me who I am and what I’m about. It’s nothing to worry about and I surely don’t want anyone reading to be concerned. Culture shock is very real and expected when someone/anyone chooses to live abroad instead of merely visiting. I can say that I’m looking forward to the time when Stage 3 has kicked in, though.

Stage 3) Gradual Adjustment – A participant starts to adjust and the local culture seems more familiar.
Stage 4) Adaptation and Biculturalism - A participant is completely adjusted to the host culture and may even experience Reverse Culture Shock upon his/her return to their home country.

What are the signs of Culture Shock? A participant is experiencing anxiety, lack of self-confidence, panic attacks, loss of initiative and spontaneity, excessive anger over minor things, strong desire to associate with people of the participant’s nationality, isolation. Yep. Check, check, check, check. I’m self-diagnosed :)

And so I’ll leave you with what’s been getting me through these few days (other than Yevgeniy):

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous hand” –Isaiah 41:10

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” –Joshua 1:9

“May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands” –Psalm 90:17

So with that, I remember my mission and purpose for packing up my life to live on the other side of the world for a year: I’m here to do good work and to make a difference teaching in a school where I am desperately needed. I’m here to teach, learn, and grow as a professional and as a woman. Bring it on, dark place!

Qvelaperi kargad iqneba!

Zugdidi, Georgia! Cows, Chickens, and Pigs, Oh My!

It’s official. I’m here at what will become my new home for the next year. I’m staying in the Samegrelo region in Zugdidi, Georgia—which is in the far northwest of the country near the Abkhazian border and about 15 minutes from the Black Sea. They use kilometers here to measure distance, so since I don’t know what they’re talking about, I stick to measuring distance in minutes ;) I haven’t been able to blog in awhile, so pardon me if this post of a quick montage of eight or so days. I’ll start with my family and new home and backtrack from there.

I have a mama (father), deda (mother), da (sister) and dzma (brother). My “siblings” are 14 and 9 and they absolutely adore me…I think. My sister Mari is 14 and speaks very broken English but has come to be my savior for translating for the rest of the family. The others know zero English, so we communicate by playing a whole lot of charades and via hand gestures. We live in a tall flat on a street with no name. None of the streets around here have any names—which explains why the postal service doesn’t really work. It’s genius how everyone still seems to know how to navigate around the city and through the nearby villages. Speaking of villages: we have another home in a village close to our flat with my bebia (grandmother) lives. She lives with two of my aunts and lots of my cousins. I have a huge family! It seems like every day we’re going to another house to visit more family members. There are also lots of cows, chickens, and pigs. Cows are basically like squirrels here. They’re in the grass, on the pavement, at the park, on the side and in the middle of every road, and so on. But back to my family! My grandmother grows just about EVERYTHING you can think of in her backyard including grapes, walnuts, other various nuts, kiwis, plums, peppers, oranges, lemons, eggplant, apples, etc. etc. etc. This grandmother is my host father’s mother. My host mother’s mom and dad—my other grandparents—live in another house and grow most of the same things. My host grandpa doesn’t speak any English but is always smiling at me and saying “I love you” repeatedly; it melts my heart.

A word on hospitality: I am so very loved here in Georgia. Because I am a guest, the entire family does everything to make me happy and comfortable at all times. For example, if you move in with a Georgian family you will be staying in the largest bedroom (there might be four other people sleeping in another room or more sleeping on couches, but the guest gets the best of the best—which really makes me feel guilty!) I’m jumping around with my pronouns here, but I’m just trying to convey that while my family is overly hospitable, it’s a part of Georgian culture for every family to act likewise with any guest. I ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS am eating or drinking something. We hear TCHAME TCHAME TCHAME TCHAME all day long, which translates (ever persuasively) to EAT EAT EAT EAT MORE! It takes roughly 10 NO responses to convey that my stomach is full. No that we’ve been here a couple of days, I only have to say that I’m full about 6-7 times. In Georgia, MAYBE means YES and NO means I-CAN-CONVINCE-YOU. It’s quite comical.

A word on marriage: The first thing I’m asked by every new person I meet is, “Are you married?” and the second is usually, “Do you want to marry a Georgian?” It’s also an extremely patriarchal society and the gender roles are ever pressing. Georgian women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and Georgian men are expected to have gained experience from many partners when they marry. How this works out—I will never understand! Georgian women start dating around 14-18 (usually someone picked out by the family), date for roughly 2 months, get married, and have children immediately after. I’ve been proposed to by strangers on two occasions in the park, but my patroni takes good care of me. Every family has a partoni, which is a male in the family who looks after unmarried women. Between my father, my millions of uncles, and my 9 year old brother who holds my hand everywhere we go—I think my patroni is covered.

A word on safety: I can say honestly that I have never felt safer in the entirety of my life. Georgian cities are small and word travels quickly, so everyone knows that Americans are here to teach and do good things and therefore even strangers are looking out for our safety and wellbeing. Because I’ve only been here for a few days, I also am not allowed to do a single thing on my own. If my family could be in the bathroom while I’m going—they would! I always have a chaperone and always have to hold hands with either my mom, sister, or brother while crossing the street. Today was my first day in the city on my own—and by on my own, I mean that I was able to hangout with my American friends without the company of someone in my host family. And let me tell you, it was no easy endeavor! My sister called me every hour to see where I was and what I was doing. Because I still have a lot of Georgian to learn, it’s impossible to communicate that I am twenty-two years, extremely independent, and quite capable of being on my own. And I’m still convinced that I was able to enjoy the company of my English-speaking friends today only because Yevgeniy was in the group.

Yevgeniy is my Russian friend from Boston who is also working for TLG. We live five minutes from each other, so I’ve been blessed to have him around every day. In Zugdidi, people speak Russian, Georgian, and Magrulian. Yevgeniy’s Russian does me well because he’s constantly translating and helping me to communicate with my family. Seriously, I don’t think I would have made it this long if it weren’t for Yevgeniy—which means so very much, since you all know that I’m the very last girl to ever admit any weakness. Whenever I am all teary eyed, weepy, and frustrated, it’s Yevgeniy to the rescue!

Never Do Today What You Can Leave For Tomorrow, or The Art of Doing Nothing At All

Nino made known to us recently that it is the Georgian way of life to never do anything today what can be done tomorrow; well, because tomorrow you might not have to do it anymore. ;)

I’m here in Georgia and find myself going back to something I had written for a college course on rhetoric.

I struggle with anxiety. It’s nothing major and definitely not anything that would require therapy or medication to fix. It’s more like an obsession-to-self-diagnose-myself-with-things-on-WebMD sort of issue. Everything stresses me out! So much so that a professor of mine used to write: “_________ stresses Carla out today,” and would laugh when I could always fill in the blank with something new yet nonetheless truthful. It could be my Type-A personality and my need for everything to be entirely perfect, or it could just be that I absolutely hate change. But c’mon, is there anyone who loves it? I could never quite comprehend the need for change. Can’t we just appreciate what we already have? You can call it a copout, but I call it a comfort zone. And most of us never venture very far out of it without a little uneasiness. After all, stress is the consequence of the failure to adapt to change. Or at least I use that as my excuse to justify my complaining about things that are new to me. I realize that I am the cause of most of my “stress” but in all actuality—it would be nice if it wasn’t always present. Regardless, turning molehills into mountains is something I’ve always been good at—and I say that with a smile.

I bet you see this one coming: All things Georgian stress me out! Certainly not in an I-regret-coming or I’d-rather-be-home-in-Chicago sort of way, but in a sense that I am constantly aware of my difference of ideology in this strange and foreign place. My schedule (save this week since we are intensely learning Georgian) is no schedule at all. Georgians wake up whenever they please, but no earlier than 10. This, of course, means that school starts no earlier than 10 and services also open no earlier than 10. The afternoons are completely free and it drives me utterly insane. We don’t eat lunch until 3 or later. The evenings are also free. Free to do…nothing. Dinner isn’t until 9 or later, and “bedtime” is much later than my strict sleeping schedule at home.

I’m writing this on September 2nd, but it may be a week or so before you are able to read it since there’s no internet here. Oh, we’re in Kutaisi now by the way. We start teaching in exactly two weeks and have no idea where or exactly what we will be teaching. We move in with our host families in a week and still have no idea who they are or in what city they live. Hence anxiety, and lots of it! If Americans ever vocalize these stresses, the Georgians respond nonchalantly with, “Not to worry. It’s not a problem.” Because nothing is ever a problem for Georgians. However, nothing being a problem is of course a problem in itself for me and this new lifestyle gives rise to an exponentially infinite amount of stress.

Well, or so I thought…

I decided that if I’m going to be living in Georgia that I should try my very best to live as Georgians do. So I bit my tongue (literally, nervous habit!) and dedicated the day to the great art of nothing. For two hours, I sat on the stoop of my hotel and watched and elderly couple bicker back and forth in Georgian. I just sat there. Listening. Watching. Inventing an English dialogue and smiling here and there at things I thought they might be or were probably saying. In the afternoon I dug Boggle out of my suitcase and tucked myself into a corner in the lobby to play a few solo rounds. A man who had been sleeping near me woke from the noise of the shaking dice and came to sit by me. He started speaking (much too fast for any new language learner…s l o o o o w w w d o w w n n n n p l e a s e) and I smiled and nodded in agreement to sounds that made absolutely no sense. He began pointing at the dice, so I pointed back to show him—without words—what I was doing. I pointed first to D, then R, then A, then W. Then I underlined the word “draw” where I had written it on my score sheet to show him that there was certainly a method to my dice-shaking madness. He then pointed to D, then Z, then M, then A, and wrote “dzma” on the paper. I shook my head no to this ridiculous and seemingly unknown combination of letters and pointed to another example of a word to show him that the letter combinations had to create a word and not simply be a random bunching of letters. He shook his head, pointed again to D, Z, M, and A, and then rigorously circled it and started speaking again in lots of Georgian. I decided to let him win this argument. I shook up the came, took off the case, set the timer, and he started searching and jotting down words (all words I did not know—he could have been making them up) so I also searched and jotted down my findings. This went on for an hour and a half. I played Boggle with someone whom I could not at all communicate with—my words in English, his in Georgian. I laughed again at my simple afternoon full of the ‘nothing’ that turned surprisingly into ‘something’ I will never, ever, ever forget.

My motto from this day forth will be qvelaperi kargad iqneba, which translates roughly to: everything will be okay.

So, while I have no idea what I am doing or where I am going, I will rest assured that the Georgians speak the truth when rid away all worries.

Cheers to Georgia, and to my wonderful afternoon of simplicity and bliss!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Departing for Georgia: Part II

We left the airport in Amsterdam refreshed and caffeinated; I was luckily seated right in front of a local gal, Nino, from Tbilisi who gave me her card, mobile number, home number, office number, and e-mail address to contact her for *anything* I might need while I'm here. She also told me that her brother lives in Kutaisi (near where my host family will be) and that she'd gladly make him drive me to whatever city I'd like to visit ;) If that isn't a warm welcome from a complete stranger, then I don't know what is. Our TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) staff member is also named Nino and told us that if we know Nino, we know the name of 50% of Georgian women. Nino is like a pseudo-mother to us all; she has been so protective of us all since we've landed. We landed in Tbilisi pretty thankful to be out of the air and finally at our destination. We were told to expect some media attention at the airport. Because our program is government sponsored, everyone knows and is interested in our presence. I was picturing a few cameras, but was in no way prepared for the paparazzi parade that awaited us outside of baggage claim. Reporters from big time news broadcasts like BBC had cameras and microphones shoved right in our faces. It was quite comical since they can't speak English and never actually asked us any questions - so I found myself looking like a deer in headlights not knowing exactly what kind of message/statement they were expecting from me. Boy, was I glad when that was over.

We took a bus to the hotel, checked in to our rooms, and ran like hell to the showers. The hotel is extremely clean and nice and we have an amazing view of the city from our back lobby. We're here until Thursday and then check out again to go to our next hotel for more orientation. There are 92 teachers in total, and we are still waiting on some of them to land in Tbilisi. Once everyone arrives, we head to Kutaisi (the second largest city in Georgia and located within the region we'll be living) to a school/hotel combo-type place to stay. From Sept. 3 - Sept. 9, we have a very packed schedule & orientation classes: breakfast at 9, Georgian language classes from 10-1:15, lunch at 1:30, ESL methodology classes from 2:30-6:45, dinner at 8, and then "evening festivities" - whatever that might mean ;) I'm so full of excitement and joy merely thinking about my schedule; I feel like I'm right back in college!

A note on scheduling: Georgia does everything later. No one rises until well past 9:00, so breakfast is never earlier than 9 or 10 in the morning. Lunch is always around 3pm, and dinner is always at 9pm! So basically, I eat dinner at about the same time I used to go to bed back home in America. I made the mistake of napping quite a bit yesterday, so I didn't sleep well last night. Now that I am fully rested, hopefully adjusting to this strange schedule will only get easier.

A note on food: I thought I was going to be losing weight while away given the new cuisine, but it turns out that I'll most definitely be gaining some. I've been eating cheese, cheese, cheese, strange meats, cheese, cheese, and did I say cheese? :) Everything is so delicious!

At our meeting yesterday, we got our mobile phones and Georgian language dictionaries. Because our phones are corporate lines, we can call any other teacher or our TLG staff members for free - which will be convenient once we're living with our host families and want to call up any of our new friends for weekend excursions. Today we're going to what our TLG staff members call "Georgian Walmart" to pick up any essentials we might need or forgot to pack. I'm excited about this because I need to purchase a blowdryer AND straightener (since mine blew up in the hotel room...whoops!)

I would attach a photo, but I haven't taken a single picture since I've gotten here. I better get on that! It's hard to get motivated to even leave the hotel because it's 97+ degrees out there, and MUCH too hot for me! It's supposed to cool down mid-September, and until then I'll daydream of hats, gloves, and snow. I'm so over you, summer!

If you haven't already done so, click "Follow Me" to the top right of the blog. I'm pretty sure it'll send you updates whenever a new blog is posted. Check back often,


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Departing for Georgia: Part I

Gamarjobat from Georgia!

After 16 hours of flying, lots of layovers, and a possible lost luggage scare, I'm here in Tbilisi, Georgia and enjoying (with the help of lots of allergy medicine) my time in the smoke-as-often-and-as-much-as-possible hotel lobby ;)

I'm sure you're expecting a follow-up from PackPossible! so I must confess that I did have a slight scare at the airport; My two 50 lb. bags ended up both weighing more than 50 lbs. Right as I was about to dish out an extra $200 for overweight bags, my new Greenheart teacher friend (a complete stranger at the time since I had only met her two minutes prior), offered to shove some of my weighty books in her carry on. We got everything figured out, slid through security with a surprising ease, and departed O'Hare at 8:45am CDT for many adventures to come.

I was then greeted at the Washington Dulles airport by two fabulous friends and ended up leaving the airport (thank you, 6 hour layover!) to grab lunch. We also had enough time to see Toy Story 3, so the time flew by quickly. I went back through security, enjoyed a farewell cup of java from my last visit to Starbucks on American soil, and boarded the flight for my Economy fare to Amsterdam.

Well...what I thought was Economy. Shortly after I stowed my much-too-heavy bag in the overhead compartment and came to terms with the fact that I would only have a centimeter of leg room, a friendly flight attendant asked me and the two other gals I was traveling with to pick up our belongings and follow her to...Business Class BABY! My new seat was - absolutely no exaggeration - a cushy, reclining, God-must-really-love-me, AMAZINGLY comfortable, Lazy Boy-esque chair equipped with a down comforter, fluffy pillow, and 3-course meal menu. I had shrimp brochetta to start, chicken sate for my main course, a cheese platter and ice cream for dessert, and a very unlimited amount of vino throughout the entire flight. JACKPOT!

Our layover in Amsterdam went as quickly as it arrived and we were soon on flight for Tbilisi. And on that note, I'm off to lunch. I'll report back later with Pt. II of my travels. Be excited; be very, very excited.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I thought after traveling to seven destinations within the past two years would make me what one might consider a "professional" packer; however, as you can see from the abyss that is my bed (left), I clearly have some room for growth in this department. I do have some tips, tricks, and techniques for easier packing, though, and I'll share them here:

Rule #1: Always, always, always start with a list. I know you're likely to avoid taking advice from this chronic list-maker, but I'm serious. It's a must. I even suggest using subtitles ;) If you can compartmentalize your suitcase for maximization of space, you can do so with you packing list. Take the challenge, people! Oh, and being a professional list-maker does not make you over-prepared or over-packed. I'll help you stay over-organized, though, while avoiding those two stigmas!

Rule #2: Roll items of clothing (and any other items with rollable potential) into logs.

Rule #3: Packing is like writing. Write first, set it aside, and come back at a later time (at least two days later). If the writing still reads the absolute way you wanted it, keep it all. If it doesn't, tweak always after you've let it aside for awhile and not only immediately after. So: PACK EARLY! Set your suitcase aside, and unpack/re-pack after a few days have passed. I've packed about 3 times already, and logical Carla has taken many, many, many at one time "necessary" belongings out of her suitcase.

Rule #4: After final stage of Rule #3, cut everything in half again. Laundry is permissible in Georgia, people!

Rule #5: To avoid the headache of trying to pack this very large stack of books (right), do not major in English. That's about all I can say about the book problem.

On a non-packing note: I leave American soil in 6 DAYS and cannot possibly be more excited. I told ya'll that my next posting would be about spiders though (fears...obviously), and a blogger never lies! My fears have nothing to do with moving, traveling, new culture, or "new" family. I've always been a pretty independent soul - a drifter, if you will- so I don't have much anxiety about new journeys. What makes "Packpossible!" slightly impossible is what doesn't fit in a suitcase: my family, my two loving felines, my puppy, my friends, Chicago-style pizza, etc. etc. etc.

So, you see...I do have fears that deal mostly with the fear of what's left behind. The real gift is to be able to distinguish between fear and worry. And worried I am not.

Best of the best,

P.S. I found out that I'll be staying more specifically in the region of Imereti. Google it!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Crazy Carla to the Caucasus

Lucky readers! It's not even August yet and here I am positing again. I've had a lot on my mind lately as I educate myself about my new home and culture, so it's only fair to externalize those thoughts in my favorite form: blog. Now that our geography lesson has come and gone, I'll just be referring to the country as Georgia. It is good, then, that all of my little scholars know exactly where I'm talking about. Still, if the summer has officially invaded the internal currents of all things educational and my strange new home still has you scratching your head, I've attached a photo ;) Here is my shameless warning that another nugget of knowledge is about to be up for the taking. I can't help it...I'm a teacher after all. The photo (right) is the geopolitical region between the borders of Europe and Asia; Georgia is a part of this region and therefore (much to my confusion) is also referred to as Caucasia--something that would have been nice to know whilst searching for guidebooks. So you see, we're all learning a little something here!

So why is the title of "Crazy Carla to the Caucasus" most suitable? Because it's simply a perfect subtitle, if you will, to "The Long Way Around" and the name of my blog in its entirety. Because when I tell my friends and family I am moving to Georgia, although most people have not even an inkling of where to I am referring, they all respond with a similar nonchalance: "Oh, of course you are" or, "You're crazy and we were waiting for some of your post-grad crazy news!" So here I am, excitedly and quite unapologetically moving to another country in less than two weeks!

Here's a thought: What's your superpower? I mean, if you could have one at all...what would it be? Most people take the traditional wish: ability to become invisible, ability to time travel, et cetera. Mine? The ability to have music follow my every stage of life via theme song (you know...like TV...where there perfect song plays in the background to accompany the actions and situational ideology of a character) If you're at all a lyrics person like I am, then it'll be worth your time to watch this video to get a "feel" for the inspiration for my irrationality and constant yearning to explore, dream, and discover:

I'm off to enjoy this cool and windy Chicago afternoon before I must leave it, but I'll be posting again soon. Here's a clue for the subject of my next post: spiders ;)

Monday, August 2, 2010

My eastward journey to the Republic of Georgia

Hey all!

Count this as my first (of many) blogs this year! Exciting news: I am moving to the Republic of Georgia on August 29, 2010 to teach English overseas with Greenheart Travel. After a professor recommendation, a couple of interviews, and a whole lot of contemplation, I've found myself dusting off my suitcases and brushing up on (the reality: learning for the first time ever!) the Georgian language. Thank you, Rosetta Stone!

For those of you who don't know, Georgia (not the southern state) is located below Russia and above Turkey. I'll be staying, specifically, in the far northwest of the country just a few miles from the Black Sea. I'll be living with a host family and will put my mailing address on the blog and on my Facebook page as soon as I'm sure of exactly where I'll be staying.

My next post will be at the end of August! So: place my blog in your favorites, and me in your prayers! Off I go! Bon voyage!

P.S. The photo above is my new home! Permission to drool. Just not on me ;)