"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.