Turkish bath, anyone?

So what do you do when your flight out of Tbilisi is cancelled, they kick you out of the airport, and put you up in a Holiday Inn? You go to a Turkish-style bath in a serval hundred year old structure.

Modest folks need not apply to this millenniums old tradition. Allow me to explain…take 4 guys that barely know each other, strip them naked, toss them in a 107 degree pool of sulfurous, rotten egg fart smelling water together and have Giorgi, a 6’4″ 280 pound hairy man bathe and massage them all.

Then have tea together whilst sporting only a towel.

Yes. This happened. Today. In Old Town Tbilisi.

And it was magical. Once Giorgi ground out his cigarette on the floor and gathered his scrubbing glove, he called yours truly up from the rotten egg fart soup we were stewing in.

I laid on my stomach and he went to work pleasurably removing the top layer of my skin. I flipped over and he repeated. Then I sat up and he worked over my neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. When done, I showered, jumped into a pool of 50 degree water, then back in the hot spring. It was now my buddy’s turn.

3 more times and I was up again. This time, I got soaped up and massaged. Giorgi didnts miss a crevice and asked if I lived in New York. That was the extent of his English because I asked him what he did between soaping up naked men and eating wrestling ring turnbuckles, he just smiled awkwardly and leaned on my sternum cracking my back. He clearly did not get the George the Animal Steel doppleganger reference.

After the soaping, I jumped in the shower to rinse off, dipped in the ice cold water, then went back in the hot spring. My skin tingled. Relaxing doesn’t even describe how I felt. I was Jello.

After a few more cigarettes Giorgi was finished with all of us and we sat in our towels enjoying some tea. None of us believing what we just experienced.

Sure, it was strange to have 4 grown naked men jump into a hot stinky pool together, only to be manhandled by a large, shirtless, hairy Turk. But this tradition dates well back to BC. This is what both men and women did weekly, it was their only time to bathe. And being the masseuse was a respected and fairly decent paying gig. In truth, this scene is only weird to Americans. We discussed at dinner who would write about the baths and most are not going to. I am choosing to write about it because this is what people did for milennia. These bath houses are, in some part, the reason why Tbilisi is the capital and a very important part of Gerogan culture. And I am writing about it because actually it was an amazing experience and surprisingly not weird at all. None of the 4 of us would have ever in a million years expected that we’d do something like this or enjoy something like this.

So that’s how I’ll end this post:while I don’t recommend you see the inside of a Turkish prison, I do recommend you and a group of your buddies come to Tbilisi and try out their sulphurous baths. You will not regret it.

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Georgia: until next time…

imageOne of my best friends, Michael Carroll, reminded me that we are Irish and there are no such things as good byes (reference to my last post). So I write this post keeping his admonishment in mind.

Luckily archaeologists unearthed my twin brother here in Georgia a few years back, so really, my DNA has never and will never leave Georgia; therefore farewells are simply presumptuous.

I’d also like to mention that I was not the only emotional mush pile yesterday-many others expressed the same sentiments. That makes me feel slightly better about my wine and Cha Cha inspired post last evening.

We woke up this morning a bit worse for the wear and debriefed our trips as a group in the IREX office. We then went to the museum and discovered my twin. We had a very dedicated docent explain artifacts to us in a style that made Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off sound like Malcolm X. Our traveling buddy Josh offered alternative explanations for the artifacts which kept us laughing and awake.

We then had some time to shop before meeting for traditional dancing and singing and our Supra. I went back to the outdoor flea market called Dry Bridge and bargained for some last minute items. One of the tests of traveling that sets you apart from novice travelers is your ability to purchase something for significantly less than the original price…in the native language. Well, I came, I saw, and I left with an item for half the original price. Time permitting, I could’ve shaved off even more I bet, but at 2.4 exchange rare, I basically got it for free.

The boys choir we heard was absolutely astonishing. The range of sounds produced was unimaginable. And it was just for us.

After the singing and dancing, we ascending to an amazing restaurant with sweeping views of Tbillisi. We ate an obscene amount of food, laughed, acted like a Tamada, and talked of what we longed for back home. All with a view that would make the Signature Room envious.

With dusk’s onset comes the Tbillisi light show. Perfectly placed spot lights all along the river reflect faint green up the steep slopes to the statue of the founding king. Just above the king are a few old Churches equally as well lit, perched upon their extremely high precipices.

With the last bit of sunlight fading away, we climbed several stairs up to the fortress fighting the inertial sway from our swollen bellies. With a bit of sweat and the last of daylight vanquished, we viewed Tbillisi from our perch.

Tbillisi is absolutely stunning at night. Hills, neon signs, beeping horns, tall statues, ancient churches, and a river winding it’s way not just through Tbillisi, but through most of Georgia. I doubt my pictures do it justice.

I find it somewhat poetic that a country and it’s cultural sub regions-seemingly different enough that each region has it’s own stereotype-is linked together by a river. Any bit of water that flows in a river is in one spot but for a fleeting moment. This moment, however, is powerful. Flowing water carves itself into the landscape just before it drifts onward, leaving behind a permanent memory of its passing. This memory also provides a path for future travelers and with enough time in passing, each traveler gets to etch its memory a bit deeper into the land, perhaps also making the river bend a bit wider, or the river a bit deeper.

Such is Georgia and those that have passed through her. Persians, Armenians, Azerbajanians, Russians, Spaniards, Romans, and Turks have all visibly left their mark on Georgia. And like water in the river, they have moved on, but their memories are etched into the architecture and culture of Georgia, providing a path in which to discover or rediscover her treasures.

As I watched Tbillisi’s light show, my eyes kept returning to the river. I was not like water in the river on this trip carving my memory into Georgia. Rather Georgia has moved through me, changing my course, and inscribing her language, culture, and traditions indelibly upon my very nature.

Luckily, rivers are navigable and these memories have provided a path. This path is now familiar, well lit, friendly, and beckoning.

Georgia, we will see each other again. I now know the way.

So, until next time…

 

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Leaving a place…

This will be a short post…

I left Zestponi today. What does that even mean? It means Shorena, Shalva, and Tomas were there to hug me goodbye. Mya and Ucho stood by as well. It was a small gathering at the minibus in the street-alley in front of Mya’s 2-flat. An insignificant scene replicated millions of times across the globe. It was simply time for good bye. But for us, the few standing together on a beautiful, cloudless day with the North and South Caucuses in view, it was rather sad. Shorena and her husband Shalva were teary-eyed. I felt my heart breaking. How is it possible that only after a week together, a parting would cause such emotion?

I don’t have an answer.

What I think…well…I think we were thrown together with varied expectations. The Department of State chose us and all were on their best behavior; we were representing the best our countries had to offer. But rather than just be representatives, we connected. We tried to become friends but ended up being like family.

Shorena kept saying “next time, next time” because she did not want to say goodbye. I did not want to say goodbye either.  I don’t want to say goodbye now.

We celebrated Amanda’s birthday in style tonight back in Tbillisi. It was fun to hear all the stories and kind of nice to share humor without hand and arm signals. But it was also quite empty. I had left my new family. They were not here to help us celebrate.

There’s no right way to end this post. I already miss Shorena, her family, the teachers of Public School #5, and especially the kids.

I feel lost…

 

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The supra…

Well…I’m alive and no Cha Cha showed up…thank goodness. Turtle, on the other hand…she’s still spewing gibberish as I write. It’s her turn tonight. Thankfully.

And to her credit, she won the day. Her heartfelt eloquence when asked by the Tamada to speak elicited oohs, ahhs, and awwws. She was pulled in so many directions all night she’ll be a few inches taller tomorrow. Turtle will be spoken about for years to come, no doubt.

There were about 20 women and 4 men. The old guy who was the Tamada or toastmaster, was also the guy that drove us to the cafe and churches. His assistant was the bell ringer at school. The director of the school and myself rounded out the male component.

I address gender here because in Georgia female teachers outnumber male teachers by more than 6 to 1 and the fact that male teachers tend to appear as failures to society and are not as respected as other professions.

I also mention gender because the Tamada who talked like Tom Waits after a carton of smokes and a bottle of Chevis Regal, was basically Tom Hurley to the women. Every time he tried to give a toast, the women kind of listened but basically ended up telling him to shut up and sit down. It was hilarious since I know zero Georgian yet could tell when Tamada was getting dissed! Eloquent toasting and heavy drinking are part of Georgian tradition assuming, of course, there are enough men to participate in the tradition. But when there’s not…

The women take over. Mariana, a senior teacher and very well respected person commanded the night. When she spoke, even the Tamada sat down. And she was not without her drink. Tonight was not a place for men, it was a place for professional women to bond, have fun, and express their love for teaching their students and maybe, most importantly, their love for each other.

Don’t get me wrong, I was included and very uncomfortably at times as the center of dancing attention. And there’s no doubt they appreciated me and my work with the students. But this was a night of celebrating Shorena, Azmat, Turtle, and the all the great teachers who had passed. Yes, there was a strong Irish sentiment present tonight.

Eventually the Tamada would try to assert himself with a long winded toast that fell on deaf ears until Mariana would start a song. This woman, with amazingly kind eyes, perfect posture, and a certain stature that said she may have commanded a tank at some point in her life, would begin to sing. And her voice…my god her voice…one would never expect this beautiful sound to come from such a woman-it demanded silence from all. Until Mary, the young dance teacher I spoke about in a previous post, would subtly croon in almost a baritone. After a verse, Khartuna and others would sing the chorus of the traditional song in a 4 part harmony; something bands might take years to prefect and tonight it just happened. It was simply magical.

These moment were broken up, of course, by bouts of drinking and dancing. Not one, but two dance instructors were there and I had to dance a pas de deux with Mary displaying my new Georgian dance skills. I felt like an ass, yet I was greeted with applause and comments that said I must’ve practiced for weeks. Ha! I’ll take it though…

The night ended as a long Irish goodbye culminating in a final 4 part harmony serenading us through the door. Somehow, this whole scene felt familiar, as if I’ve felt this camaraderie before. Then I remembered, it was amongst my male friends. I don’t think I can recall a time when I felt this way amongst all females. Yet here I was, witnessing a scene I was very familiar with:drinking, laughing, toasting, singing; remembering the dead and hoping for the future. The only difference was that this time, I was the interloper.

And a thought occurred to me…Georgia’s future is uncertain and it’s education system is undergoing significant change. If Georgia was wise, it would trust their future to the teachers of Zestaponi Public School #5. Their backs could bear the burden; their hands could mold the future; their song could fill the well of despair; and their professionalism could set the standard of performance for all Georgians.

Tonight was wonderful…

 

 

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Last day in Zestaponi…

Well, quite frankly, this sucks. I’m breaking a new rule (the Dan Doyle rule as it will heretofore be known) by talking about tomorrow, today. But the odds are good that ChaCha will prevent me from posting tonight because the teachers are throwing us a going away Supra (banquet). Please consider this post a “duty first” obligation.

I’m leaving for Tbillisi tomorrow morning. No more Shorena and her family’s hospitality. No more beautiful mountain and river views. No more eating amazing food. No more bonding with amazing fellow professionals. No more Georgian students.

It makes me sad. It really does. I am still reeling from the warmth of this place against the cold, gray background of haphazardly built multistory cattle dwellings some might call apartments.

Everyone is asking us to come back and stay longer. 2 weeks is not long enough! Come in the summer and go to Svetia (north caucuses). Come in the fall for the leaves, harvest, wine pressing, bread making and Shalva says the hunting!

There’s a part of me that calls BS. No one can be that nice! My city living screams at everyone I see-“what is your angle, guy?” But there is a rare sincerity here. Imereti, the region I am in, is known for its hospitality. And it seems genuine. I stare into the eyes of everyone I meet, smiling, trying to break down that tough soviet exterior and with a broken Georgian phrase or two, they soften. And when they do, it’s like a curtain is pulled up from over their eyes to reveal a glowing fire, intense depth of feeling, and a warm hug.

It is best seen in the children of Zestaponi. The affection they have shown their teachers has become the affection they have shown Turtle and I. Today it was like we were famous walking through the halls. We were asked to take a million selfies, “hello” echoed like a chorus at Christmas, and smiling kids looking up at us showing us the swag Turtle and I gave them. We were even interviewed by local TV. At the end of the English lesson, Lana said to me, “I will not forget you, please don’t forget me”. She was the one who asked what my dream was…

How can I ever forget?

The parents, teachers, and especially the children have given me an amazing gift-they have let me in. They made me feel like family. They made me feel special in way I’m not sure I’ve felt before. How  can anyone wish to leave this?

For Mr. Henry’s class, we had our round table discussion. It was all 12th graders (seniors). First, they LOVED the presentation! Several have expressed interest in reading your writings and they would wish you to read theirs. It wasn’t everyone, but the students that want to will be waiting for me to coordinate. Their English is better than mine and they drove the conversation today.

Ultimately, US and Georgian seniors are pretty much the same. Everyone likes movies and videos games, hanging out with their friends, reading, writing, and preparing for University. I felt odd asking what they ‘really’ did given the teachers in the room, but from what I can see of Zestaponi, hanging with friends means hitting a coffee shop, walking up and down the street, texting and taking selfies. When I said how much do clothes cost (a question from one of Mr. Henry’s students) they said it varies tremendously but they revealed they go into Tbillisi to shop where they have more and better stores. It’s about a 3 hour minibus drive from Zestaponi so I’m guessing that is a very common social activity for Zestaponi teens: head to the big city.

Turtle and I were able to participate in a few lessons. My favorite was one of Shorena’s 8th grade English lessons: she handed out phrases in English, we had to act it out without saying and the class had to say what was happening in the past tense. Anna, Lana and I acted it in a very silly way that drew laughter and more importantly the right answer. Since we went first, the class was up for grabs after that. What a way to end out time with the students.

We also observed a geography lesson with juniors and an English class with 5th graders.

Then what do you after a morning like that? Drive into the mountains, seeing of the oldest churches in Georgia, and picnic on the side of the road.

I must now prepare mentally for the food I will eat and wine I will drink at tonight’s Supra…

 

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“Teacher” in Georgia means love

imageIt’s about to get a bit sentimental up in this piece. My wife is a special education teacher in the city and knows that some kids require touch-a hold of the hand, a gently touch on the shoulder to change direction, a squishy ball to hold when certain kids gets antsy. But here in Georgia it’s quite common for a teacher to hold a child’s chin and gently squeeze the cheeks, give a smile, and say something nice. The kids line up in front of Shorena so she can do just that; their large eyes smiling at the show of affection.

Older teachers, who at first glance might seem like a relic of the Soviet era-erect and expressionless-give a slight squeeze of the arm when the child gets it right resulting in a warm smile and red face from the student.

Each classroom has a dean, but this dean is only responsible for that class, no more than 30 students. The dean will visit homes, call parents, and ensures students are in attendance. For today’s geography lesson, the dean of the class was present and taking pictures. She is also the Russian language teacher that sat with us during the round table discussion amongst the English teachers. Like the geography teacher, although much younger, she is stern and expressionless. A young boy across from me, one of the 2 class clowns, was not paying attention as much as she liked so she walked behind him. He knew he was in for it, said something to his buddy, and turned red. She bent down behind him, gave him a hug, pulled back and gave that light smack to the back of his head telling him to behave (he giggled) and then hugged him again. She left her arm around him the rest of the lesson and the boy beamed the whole time.

This love for students is shared amongst teachers. The teachers lounge is a mosh pit of hugs, kisses, student work, gradebooks, flying sheets of paper, frantic gesturing, crescendoing voices, boiling tea, and empty cups of instant coffee. A room that should hold a dozen is bursting with 20 or so teachers bouncing between Russian and Georgian interrupted only by the bell ringer man who presses the button to sound the period. Both the principal and assistant principal are in and out as well as a steady flow of students waiting for specific teachers or handing work over or getting material for the next lesson. It’s utter madness. The only thing holding the room together is camaraderie, love of the job, and love of each other.

Today the teacher’s lounge allowed Shorena to hold court and organize our Supra tomorrow. We stepped outside to give her a good half an hour to catch up on the gossip, organize, and tell stories. It’s clear she needed that connection time after almost a week with us. She said she missed not seeing her other family.

I had wanted to create an “Ode to Georgian Teachers” with a series of pictures but I find myself too late on the draw with the camera. Moments are quick-a touch of the cheek, a pat on the head or back or even a just a warm look. It’s so clear to me that here, teachers love their students and their students love their teachers. To Shorena, her teaching is her life and her students are her family. The act of teaching, to her, is an expression of love…

We also went to a special education school which will require another post. The geography teacher started the school. Yeah, she started the school. Saved many,  may kids. It’s a warm place filled with dedicated women and sheer love. No other way to say it. Shorena had to leave in the middle of the children singing and Turtle was a puddle. Maybe I even coughed a bit. In a heaping pile of gray concrete, crumbling streets, neglected post Soviet bravado, and just dirt poor conditions; where the future of its students may have been just as gray…here this place…this place is where every child can now find a rainbow.

Ok, so that’s a little cheesy. I can’t help it. You’d be a puddle too if you would’ve seen the stark contrast of this special ed school and it’s surroundings. And to know one human took the initiative to change the lives of so many. Sappy Brian OUT…

 

 

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Presenting to Zestaponi students

Today, I donned my teacher hat and shared Mr. Henry’s 5th period class presentation and my own presentation about Chicago. Turtle shared her presentation about her school and the Navajo Indians. All presentations were met with eager eyes and constant attention. Clearly, these students wanted to learn what America is like for kids.

Now I will say that Turtle and I built some “street cred” with our antics on Saturday. Apparently, so much so that parents were calling Asmat and saying how thankful they were the Americans were there because the kids had so much fun.

Another indicator of our semi-celebrity was attendance. We taught 1st, 2nd, and 3rd periods and by 3rd period, the room was almost spilling over. There were even a few teachers in attendance that wanted to learn about Al Capone! I’m joking about Al Capone, but my Tomas’ Ad Hoc Georgian Cantina fiasco was still ringing in my ears.

I’m honestly challenged to find a way to describe the setting. In all honesty, there is no real difference other than Shorena translating on occasion. Kids are kids and this trip makes me think there’s not a whole lot of differences amongst teenagers across cultures. They are a bit squirmy and excitable and silly and fun loving and boundary pushing; but all the same. An older boy in the back was trying to be too cool for school, by leaning way back but he laughed with everyone else, clearly paying attention. There was the shy kid with head slightly bent down, looking at my presentation through his eyebrows. There was the smarty pants kid who asked a few questions and wasn’t afraid to use his English. There was the girl who asked me what my dream was, anxious to participate in the conversation but was caught between being too cool and being too shy-her undivided attention and shooing a friend away gave her interest away. There was of course the class clown who was doing very random things with the Reavis lanyard I gave him.

So the cast of characters that exist in any classroom was evident. Shorena had worked very hard with Peace Corps volunteers to paint her room, fix the furniture, and write grants for her classroom so it was cheery even within the post Soviet, dilapidated and dark enclosure. It really felt like I was teaching in America.

So what sticks out, for me, was the sheer joy and intensity in learning something new. Here were a group of kids who did not have to be there (after 9th grade, school is voluntary) yet they followed me the way a predator might follow prey-looking for any opening, any way to learn more to generate a plan of attack. I suppose predator and prey is an unusual analogy but I think fitting. Not because they were ready to pounce, or were angry or hungry but because it felt like they wanted nothing to escape them. Students seemed to track Everything I said, showed a picture of, or gestured about as if they were cataloging data. Students were all smiling, laughing, and it seemed having fun, but following me as I paced like a crowd at Wimbledon.

I do recognize this is already a romanticized version of today’s events. While students were interested, I was keenly aware I was doing something more than teaching. I felt as if I were representing America and South Siders ( yes, I appropriately bashed the Cubs) so perhaps I was more the predator. Reading students faces and body language as I spoke, hoping they would laugh at my jokes, hoping they would think Chicago is great, trying to find that in so I could make a lasting connection.

And you know what’s the real truth? They’re kids who didn’t have to do the normal routine that day finding out about “stuff” they wanted to learn about from two strange people they’ve met before and had a connection with. That’s it.

But for me, it felt different, like something more. I felt a part of a family for a day. The intensity I felt from the kids-made up or otherwise-made me feel different as I spoke. The warm greetings before class to the cacophony of good byes, “nak-vahm-dis” , thank yous, and see you laters made me beam. I truly enjoyed myself and felt privileged to have such a day with such wonderful young people.

In true Georgian fashion, the day was not over. We attended a dance practice with middle schoolers. It was so fun! The dancing looks so hard-it’s fast, furious, of the toes, jumping and slamming knees into the ground, heart pounding action! The ladies spend the entire time on their toes like ballerinas, twirling, and stepping almost like Irish dancers. They were so happy we were there watching them and nervousness too. What kept making me laugh in my head were the coaches. There were about 40 kids and 4 Russian teachers. Am old man and old woman and a young man and young woman. They were clapping and barking orders and I kept thinking how Khrushchev would be so proud, whipping the young comrades into promising representatives of communist education. But as I watch more, there was a lot of tenderness to the barking-subtle arm corrections, broad smiles when done well, gentle pushes at the hips. Clearly, these 4 instructors loved dance, loved teaching, and more importantly loved the kids. It was really wonderful to watch.

And then…yes, the day is not over…and then we went to a 6th century monetary, on a stone pedestal 120 feet a above the ground. We then got a personal tour by the lone monk living on top.

Oh, one more thing. I learned how to dance traditional Georgian. Pictures of me dancing coming soon…

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8th graders

imageShorena’s students wanted to show us their region, so they-the 8th grade class-planned our excursion Saturday. First, we went to a 9th century Monastery 15 minutes outside Zestaponi called Ubisa. Frescos from that period were faded, but still intact. A very holy place that had quite a different feel.

Students then served us lunch next to the Church near a river. The kids chose what we ate and helped their parents make the food. They also waited on Turtle and I hand and foot. They were still a bit shy at this time so conversations were short.

Shorena’s 12 grade student makes traditional pottery known only in an area around Zestaponi. This area is Shorapini and we were going to watch her student make pottery! Turtle (who’s a geologist) says the clay was formed in the middle Jurassic period making this an even more unique adventure.

We pulled off the road at the base of a very large hill. At the base of the hill were various families selling their handmade clay pottery. The area where we were going to see the pottery was atop the hill, so it was time to hike.

Me, another chaperone named Azmat, and a peace corps volunteer named Ellie ascended about 1 mile straight up with the 8th graders! Shorena and Turtle got in a family’s 4×4 so they had an easier, but more harrowing time. The path up had no flat spots, lots of switchbacks, and was extremely muddy. Even the kids were sweaty and had to stop for a rest once or twice during the ascent. It felt the the Smokey Mountains trip with Doylie, John and Mark. I was so sweaty and hot that at the top my head was steaming-the kids got a laugh out of that!

First, the view was stunning. We were atop a mountain so we had extensive, sweeping views of the valley. The hut where the pottery was being made was easily a hundred years old, if not older. And there were chickens and dogs running everywhere.

Shorena’s student made 3 items: a dish for baking mushrooms, a flower vase, and a piggy bank. He deliberately kept us in suspense by being very creative about building up the clay. He’d work the clay into a ball, then flatten it, adding sand before he put it on the wheel. Then he’d work a chunk of clay into a long snake and wrap it around the base, building up the height. All the kids would loudly speculate but he wouldn’t let on, just scraping and turning. When he was done, the kids would cheer and clap both.

As a bonus, we watched authentic Shotipuri being made, it’s bread, thats curved. It’s curved because it’s baked in a vertical clay pot, and slapped on the sides of the pot similar to Indian naan. Pretty neat.

By the time the bread was done, we were ready to descend but not before a taste of homemade port. Mmmmm. What Georgians do with grapes is utterly amazing and our next stop would present me another opportunity to see grapes in action.

The day took us to another 9th century monastery deep in the woods called Tabakini. The kids had to carry all the food on the 30 minute hike because yes, we had to have BBQ.

The walk this time produced a lot more conversation. The kids were used to us and a bit braver. They asked me about my dreams, to play Simon says, and what I thought of Georgia. I’m so impressed by their willingness to speak English and with their skill at doing so.

The kids found a picturesque spot next to a small river. Turtle, Shorena and I walked to the church while the kids and Azmat prepared our BBQ. The church we saw was similar with similar frescos in equally good conditions. It’s just hard for me to believe that artwork over 1000 years old survives with zero professional preservation.

After our church tour the kids presented us with lunch and BBQ-skewered marinated beef. Delicious. We could’ve been Anyywhere USA eating, laughing, and just enjoying the food and surroundings. But I was in for yet another special treat.

Azmat brought all the fixings to make churchkhela a traditional Georgian food on strings. You see it everywhere here. Basically, you take sweetened grape juice, add tons of flour, and boil until super thick. Then take hazelnuts that were strung together and dip into the boiling wine. Dip, let stand a bit, dip again, repeat until the nuts are covered to your liking. Eat 2 weeks later. It’s really good-I’ll bring some home for Mr. Henry’s 5th period class.

We didn’t wait 2 weeks of course to try it, we had it moist, not chewy the way it’s supposed to be. When the thickened grape juice is poured on a plate and nuts are sprinkled on the juice, it’s called Pelamushy. It’s warm, semi-sweet, and super yummy and that how we ate the left over boiled juice.

Our day concluded with me and the kids walking back to a game of nouns. I think of a noun and act it out without saying the word and the kids must shout out the answer in English. I think I made some new friends with that game after my chicken and elephant imitations. The game didn’t last long because the kids figured out I couldn’t make sounds necessary to speak Georgian, so they were trying to make me say words with the sound then laughing hysterically when I screwed it up. Eventually, I figured out what they were doing and deliberately mispronounced the words in a silly way just to make them laugh

Needless to say, I loved my time with them. They provided the perfect ending to an already amazing day.

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The corner store

imageZestaponi has small corner stores, Kwiki-Mart style all over the place, every few blocks. Last night I went to our corner shop after an amazing day-which I will discuss in the following post-to purchase water because we were out. I was already late to our host family’s dinner where I was to learn how to make Khinkhali (a traditional dumpling you eat with your hand) so I was in a hurry. Well, I saw Shorena’s husband, more like just the top of his head, call “Brian! Brian!” He then stood up gesturing me to come over, so I did. Then I saw the 4 other men packed into a corner, behind the counter sitting on stools, and crates with a small box as a table. On the table was some sausage, bread, and yellowy smoked fish. A gallon of beer was on the floor next to a man named Za Za. Chouli, Shorena’s husband, pulled out a plastic chair from the back, and basically threw me into it. None of the men spoke English. Chouli spoke some Spanish and Tomas, the shop owner, spoke a tiny bit of English. It didn’t really matter though because they spoke beer and Cha Cha.

And, apparently, so did I.

45 minutes later Mya, our host mom, sent her son to get me at the shop. Um, how’d see know where to find a foreigner? Where else are the men in the neighborhood on a Saturday night but at Tomas’ ad-hoc Georgian Cantina of course!

Tomas poured another shot of Cha Cha for us all and I believe the toast was to my health because I was now almost 2 hours late, and Tomas knew I was in trouble!

Lucky for me the nephew was able to explain the reason for my tardiness and I was thrust into the kitchen to make Kinkhali. Mya and Bebia instructed then supervised me making a mess of the Kinkhali. Let’s just say you could easily see which ones I made.

We then sat down to a feast! My 4th of the day. Imagine Old Country Buffet meets 5 Star restaurant and you have the average Georgian meal. Multiple by 4 and you had my day yesterday. It’s like I’m training for competitive eating. I am actually disgusted with myself for eating the sheer quantities of wonderful food. It hurts to eat this much. And yet “Ara, Ara!” (No no) to more food as I point to my distended gut doesn’t help any. Apparently, Georgians want to see my stomach explode. The food is so good, I think I might happily oblige them.

The 5 year old grandson entertained us with traditional song and dance after dinner. He is awesome and quite the star!

Then came more wine…wine, wine, and more wine. All homemade from their vineyard in the front yard and very delicious. With the Cha Cha, beer, and wine, I on the precipice. Then the boys walked in from the corner store greeted by scowls from their wives. Laughter filled the room quickly when they pointed to me and said, “Cha Cha!”

I think everyone had fun last night at my expense. It made for a rough morning, but some great memories, albeit partially fuzzy ones…

 

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Kindred spirits, great hosts, and Bebia

imageI’ll just start by saying that today was the day to end all days. I cannot do justice to this day’s joy with my “pen”. Today, the pen is not mightier than the sword, and the sword is not capable of cutting away the wonder.

Where to begin? Perhaps, at the beginning…

12th graders and 8th graders delivered presentations, in English, about universities in Georgia and Georgian regions (states). Turtle and I both co-taught the lessons. It was great-the students were respectful, articulate, and quite curious. Plus, the 8th graders arranged a field trip for us tomorrow. Yes, the 8th graders planned the field trip. We are going to learn how to make clay pots tomorrow AND how to make traditional Georgian dessert. Then, we had a round table discussion with English and Russian teachers. It ended with a change of plans-the teachers are going to throw us a Supra before we leave. With dancing!

The way the teachers worked with each other, the warmth, concern, and professionalism with which they interacted should be the envy of any teaching department. I recorded some of the conversation-it was wild. English, Russian, and Georgian all being spoken translated, and responded to. One of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever been a part of. The best part? We have the identical issues with teaching, administrators, and education policy. It was like being a part of an intercontinental professional family.

And it was only 2pm…

Shorena, the greatest host on the planet, opened her home to us. I persuaded her to talk her mother-in-law into teaching me how to cook. And it worked-Bebia showed me how to cook Kachapuri. Reavis students, look out! It reminded me of when my mom taught me to make calzone. Working with the dough has to be taught-you cannot read about how it’s done.

We ate an obscene amount of food. All homemade and from their garden. Even the chicken was hand raised! The wine. Oh, the wine. Their white wine is orange, fermented in clay pots and buried for months. It’s amazing. Dad and son David informed me it is quite common under normal circumstances for a man to consume 3 liters of wine at a dinner like Shorena hosted. 3 liters? Since Bebia and dad did not speak English, I kept pointing to my distended gut and holding up 3 fingers usually greeted by long laughs from each and a newly filled glass!

David played a Panduri-a three string guitar that sounds a bit like a Ukelele, but deeper and less “pingy”. After a few minutes of playing, David began to sing, then dad joined in. It was wonderful. We had our own traditional concert in front of a fire place surrounded by our new “family”. With the fireplace, family heirlooms, and general familial warmth, I could’ve been at home back in Chicago with Steve Wollard on the guitar, Buttamilk Bisquit spewing the lyrics, my sister Colleen singing backup and my wife Chris at my side.

After many more toasts, multiple pitchers of wine, and several demitasse full of homemade Cha Cha that Shorena made from scratch, a yawn from David told us it was time to go.

We were escorted down the block by dad and David who told us time and again that we we’re welcome back anytime.

Generosity. Comraderie. Family.

Regardless of background, creed, culture, or manner of speaking peoples everywhere fundamentally speak the same language. But here in Zestaponi, the “language” spoken makes you feel like family.

 

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