Sunday, January 31, 2010

Alli, why don't you know Georgian yet?

The short answer: because I know Russian!

The long answer:

I never realized when living in Russia how vital my classes were in teaching me grammar and words so I could later pick them up in conversation. Maybe that sounds stupid, but it's true – I sort of had the idea that even if I weren't in class, I'd still have picked up the language okay.

Turns out, for me at least, that's just plain not true. Because I've been in Georgia for a total of seven months already, but beyond a few words and phrases, I don't know any more Georgian than I did when I first arrived.

I forgot that I'm not five years old anymore and can no longer spontaneously learn a language. In particular, most of my linguistic exposure is aural, and I've found that without written confirmation of what I hear, sounds that are new to me continue to pass by my ear – I simply can't catch them.

I know it's possible to retrain one's ears to hear new sounds, as I hear the difference between hard and soft consonants in Russian that I couldn't differentiate and the beginning of my studies. So there's hope.

Beyond my lack of formal language study – something I hope to remedy soon – there's the probably more important fact that everyone is already used to speaking with me in Russian. So it's very hard for them to remember to switch to Georgian, and I – because I understand them in Russian – don't remind them. There have been a couple attempts to “go Georgian,” but when I don't understand right away, it's too easy for everyone to just switch over to Russian rather than struggle through it to communicate in Georgian. The irony, of course, is that without Russian Reziko and I would never have met at all, but now that same language has become a crutch.

My first few months in Russia in 2005 were miserable because I didn't understand what people were saying to me. My brain was overwhelmed by linguistic input it couldn't process. But that experience is necessary to push through to language fluency. I feel like my ear is so used to hearing Georgian around me now that if only I'd learn a little grammar and vocabulary, everything would fall into place. But until I can create that uncomfortable situation where Georgian is the only language of communication, I fear I'll never pick it up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Well, I know all you Midwesterners have about had it up to here with snow already this winter, but I just have to share: it's snowing in Batumi!

A couple nights ago it was wintry-mixing, which is the usual order of business here when it "snows." It's like slush falling from the sky, it's gross and wet and not pretty at all. But yesterday was actually pretty cold, close to freezing all day, and towards evening REAL snow started to fall - the dry, dusty kind.

This is the first time I've really been cold here - it's one thing for temperatures to hit freezing when you have a nice central furnace heating the whole house, and another to wake up in a room not one degree warmer than outside. Brr!

But it's worth it, because this morning I woke up and even without my glasses I could see that we had a good foot of snow on the roof. Whoopeee! It's Iowa-beautiful, but in Batumi. It looks so strange and marvelous! And it will disappear so quickly once the sun comes out again... but it's fun while it's here!

Finding Balance: A Gastronomic Journey

When I left Iowa City in June, 2008, to study Russian in Vermont followed by 9 months in Russia, I was physically quite fit. I worked out 4-6 days a week and carefully watched what I ate; despite occasional splurges (nummy treats at the office, anyone?) most of my food intake was carefully planned and executed. When I went grocery shopping, I bought the exact number of apples I'd need to get through the week, my dinners were planned out ahead of time, and lunch and snacks were planned, packed, and subsequently devoured ONLY at the appointed time.

Yes, it was a bit obsessive, but it gave me control, and I liked how I looked and felt. I was fitter (and thinner) than I'd ever been in my adult life, and while I've never been overweight, I enjoyed feeling trim and muscular.

I was able, for the most part, to maintain my diet and exercise routine in Vermont (although exercise started to fall by the wayside when Reziko and I met and almost all activity outside of class was replaced with Skype time). At the very least, the foods available to me gave me healthy options, and I made somewhat regular use of the campus gym.

Then came Russia. I already knew from my previous year in Petersburg to anticipate some weight gain – a different diet and climate, after all, will have their effects. But I felt like I gained a LOT last year. Maybe it was the lack of sunlight draining me of all energy, maybe it was academic burnout, maybe it was a lack of sleep from staying up late to talk to Reziko, but my willpower and motivation were sapped. I would eat a relatively healthy meal of salmon or chicken with steamed veggies, then after dinner pig out on cookies or pudding made with whole milk or my host mom's turnovers or chocolate. None of these things are bad in moderation, but I was eating them constantly, and they constituted the majority of my calories. My host mom would bake constantly, I'd helplessly scarfed it all down and beg her not to make so many or so often because I couldn't resist, and we'd repeat it next week. I started to eat not from hunger, but from boredom, stress, loneliness.

I did have a gym membership, paid all up front in September. I could use the facilities as often as I wanted, whenever I wanted, including classes. And I did go. Sometimes a couple weeks would go by without a single workout, but especially toward spring I got better at going at least 3 times a week. But with my eating out of control, the exercise did little to influence my weight or shape. My clothes were too tight, my stomach too round, and I wasn't a happy camper.

Since then, Georgia has had quite an influence on me in the diet department. My first few visits were downright gluttonous, as my desire to try everything and the Georgian tradition of stuffing guests silly ganged up on me. As I made forays back into the world of meat, I earned myself quite a lot of stomach upset, including one illness this summer that landed me in the hospital for some rehydration. But since then (and after a few weeks back in Iowa eating my comfort foods – spinach and cottage cheese), something has clicked with me, and I feel like I'm eating better than I did in Russia AND in Iowa City.

First and most important, Georgia has broken me of that nasty habit of finishing everything on my plate. Take too much? Leave it. There's no reason to stuff yourself. Finishing it does not feed starving children in China, it just messes with your hunger signals and stretches your stomach out. I've long known this, of course, but my solution back in college was to simply severely limit the amount of food available to me, based on the premise that I can't stop myself if given unlimited access to food. This is still true when it comes to chocolate. But where I went wrong in Iowa City was limiting access even to the good stuff. I don't think an extra half cup of cottage cheese or a whole sandwich instead of half of one would have killed me or made me fat – and I would have spent a lot less time running around hungry and watching the clock until my next designated eating time. Also, this strategy taught me nothing about learning to say “no” in situations were I'm not in control of the serving spoon. I've learned the hard way that taking another cabbage roll or piece of meat just to be polite does nobody any favors – especially me when I spend the whole evening or next day feeling ill as a result!

Another habit in the Gvarjaladze household has proved very helpful to me: no set mealtimes. Not hungry. Don't eat. Hungry at 11 PM? Inga will get up and fix you a plate (I've never asked her to do that, by the way, but sometimes she gets up and takes over anyway). We all eat breakfast and dinner at different times, which has provided me a great opportunity to get more in tune with my body's hunger signals.

These two developments – only eating till I'm full and only eating when I'm hungry – have been revolutionary for me, even though they aren't new concepts in the health and fitness world. I haven't been exercising here at all beyond our fairly regular seaside walks, yet, despite a diet higher in fat and with more cheese, bread, and meat and fewer veggies than before, I haven't gotten fat like I feared I would! I weigh less than in Russia and just a few pounds heavier than my lowest weight in Iowa City. Would I like more veggies? Yes. Would I like more whole grains? Yes. My diet here isn't perfect. But I am way more satisfied than I ever felt in Iowa City, and I don't feel like a gluttonous pig like I did in Russia (I know the fact that it's warmer here and my body isn't trying to store winter fat helps, but that's not all of it).

And while I'm still trying to work around fitness restraints here – weird rules about when one may and may not go running by the sea, for example – I have started in the past week or so to work strength exercises and yoga back into my daily routine. I feel perhaps I've truly started to find a balance.

Monday, January 25, 2010

New Floss

Confession time: I have not always been a regular flosser. I'm an avid twice-a-day brusher, but for some reason flossing has had a hard time working it's way into my nightly routine next to the more easily habituated tooth brushing and face washing and moisturizing. I've tried, folks, I really have, but the habit has a habit of not sticking.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that I hate the floss itself. The waxed kind is, well, waxy, and always seems to leave behind little chunks of wax. Ew. The unwaxed stuff is too hard and hurts my gums, even when I'm really careful. I had a large spool of unwaxed floss for a pretty long time, and I finally used it up last week; despite my above comments, I have been flossing regularly - if not daily - for one month and going strong. Woot!.

Once that hateful old spool of unwaxed floss was gone, I felt free to try the Crest Glide floss my friend Kerry accidentally left here when she visited last July (Ker, if you're reading this, the floss fell off the shelf into the laundry basket, which is probably why you couldn't find it when you were packing). Let me tell you, kids, I have seen the light. Apparently while I was spending all that time hating on flossing, somebody actually came up witha floss that gets between teeth without collateral (gum) damage AND doesn't leave behind a horrible residue. I'm not a paid spokesperson, I swear. This floss is just really awesome.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Where does the money go?

I'm no healthcare expert, nor do I pretend to understand all the nuances and implications of the healthcare bill whose future is now in doubt in Congress, despite the fact that I regularly read the latest developments in the New York Times. But one question that definitely has not been answered, at least not in a way I understand, is how this proposed bill will lower costs. I simply don't understand why healthcare costs so much in the US.

For comparison purposes, lets turn to the world of dentistry. I haven't had dental insurance for several years now, and I haven't been to the dentist since 2006 as a result. When I looked into it in 2008, I found that an initial exam with x-ray at the dental clinic my friend recommended in Iowa City would cost $175. Just to take a peek! I didn't go then because I didn't have the money, and while I've thankfully had no dental complaints in the past four years, I don't actually know that there isn't a problem that needs attention.

Here in Georgia, we're in the process of doing Reziko's teeth. Genetics tossed him some pretty bad teeth to begin with, and in addition he's neglected getting them looked at for even longer than me, so I was quite relieved when I finally convinced him to get them taken care of (mostly by explaining how much more costly it would be to deal with a problem in the US!).

The clinic we're going to is small, clean, and professional. It's dentists are certified by the National Dental Association of Georgia, which in turn is certified by the European Dental Association. All of their tools, materials, and equipment are manufactured in Europe, America, or Japan and are held to high standards of quality. These guys know what they're doing, and they do it well.

One of the dentists here is Reziko's friend, but he's being treated by another, as the friend was on vacation when we wanted to get started. We stopped in before New Years for a consultation, and the initial exam and x-ray were free. We've come to the clinic nearly every day since January 4. The first couple of weeks were to treat some inflammation and remove some surface decay, now we've moved on to filling teeth (5!) and fitting a couple prostheses (crowns, I think they're called in English? I'm rusty on dental terminology).

In total, including all of the above plus special toothpaste and mouthwash and antibiotics, our bill is not going to top $250. That's right, just $250. True, for the average Georgian family $250 is still a lot of money to pay out of pocket, but when you consider that our entire treatment cost is just a little less than one and a half times what we would have paid in Iowa just for the first exam, the difference is truly remarkable.

As a layperson, I can't speak to the cost of materials, instruments, equipment, office space, or support staff neither in the US, nor in Georgia. Nor can I attest to the take-home pay of dentists in either country. But, other than perhaps dentist's salaries, I can't imagine that expenditures are so much astronomically higher in the US that they account for the huge difference in treatment cost. So where is that money going? And what has whoever gets it done to earn it? I think that these are the questions that need to be answered in the (now more tenuous) US healthcare debate.

Has anyone had experience with healthcare outside the United States? What were your impressions of the quality of care and cost?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Yay yay yay yay yay yay yay yay!

Reziko's interview at the consulate in Tbilisi is scheduled for February 16. One step closer to a US visa. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOT! We're doing the Document Dash for the next few days...

Celebrating the Moment

Last Sunday was my godfather, Iva's, birthday. Reziko and I were among 15 or so people who gathered for dinner at Iva's home. It was a typical Georgian gathering: very noisy, toasts that went on for several minutes or more, lots of joy and laughter, and even quite a bit of singing, from traditional Georgian songs to church hymns. Much hilarity ensued when our tamada (toastmaster) demanded that at least one toast be given in Russian for my benefit, as the boisterous guests did their best and gave each other a hard time about their rusty Russian.

This gathering reinforced my desire to *finally* learn Georgian, because I'm tired of being left out of the jokes while everyone around me laughs. But it also reminded me what I love about Georgians, and why I think I could live here long-term. Georgians are joyful people. They've been through a lot, and because of this they understand the importance of celebrating the moment. I like that.