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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New Years Resolutions

So maybe I'm a bit late with the New Years resolutions post. But if you consider that New Year by the old calendar was January 14, I'm really not that late at all! Besides, I'm a bit of a year-round goal-setter anyway; New Years is just a convenient time to reflect and evaluate what my priorities are for the near future.

Before going on to tell you all about my goals for this year, I want to take a moment to look back at all the neat stuff I did in 2009:

1. I completed a rigorous study abroad program in Russia.
2. I tested at 3+ (professional+) in speaking and reading in Russian.
3. I converted to Orthodoxy.
4. I got married!
5. I successfully figured out how to cable-knit and knitted a scarf for my hubby in just under a week.
6. I rode for 8 hours over unpaved mountain roads in fog to get to an 11th century cave city.
7. I spent more than 24 hours in the transit lounge of the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul (thankfully, not consecutively).
8. I started a new job as a translator and copy editor at International Life magazine.

Not bad for one year, eh? Still, there are lots of things I'd like to get done (or at least make progress toward) in 2010. They say you'll have more luck if you don't try to change too many things at once, so here's my short-list, my top three goals for 2010:

1. Get back in shape. Original, I know. But I miss muscly Alli and the energy working out gives me. So I'm aiming for 3-6 hours of activity a week, including cardio, strength, and flexibility training. I've already gotten started with some strength exercises and yoga, but I'd like to add in some more vigorous cardio. I was looking at getting back into running (without over-training and killing my shins like last time) by following the Couch to 5K running schedule. If I can start getting my buns out of bed early enough to run during the “socially acceptable running hours,” I'll be doing 5Ks by mid-March!

2. Learn Georgian. At least a little. More than the 30 or so random words I know now, including chipi (bellybutton), bibilo (earlobe), and zazuna (hamster), all of which are fun to say but not that useful in day-to-day conversation. I know hello and goodbye, I can tell when I'm being toasted, I can say thank you, and understand from context when someone asks, “Oh, she is your spouse?” ("spouse" being one of those words in Georgian that I understand when I hear but can't pronounce myself). I also know a few swear words. but I can't follow most conversation, let alone participate, and it's starting to get embarrassing that people are STILL having to switch to Russian on my behalf. The longer I'm here, the more disrespectful it feels not to know the local language. I have a textbook, but it turns out I'm crap at sticking to a study schedule without somebody asking for my homework every day. So even though it's hopeful we'll only be in Georgia another 2-3 months, I'm again on the hunt for a Georgian teacher.

3. Become a part of the Orthodox community. I converted last summer and I've done some reading, but I still have a lot to learn about living an Orthodox life – new traditions to take up, habits to form, and lots and lots of history to read and digest. I don't expect to become an expert on Orthodox theology in a year, but I'd like to be able to fluently explain why the filioque is a heresy or what theosis means or exactly what our views on the meaning of the Incarnation are when people say, “So, you're Orthodox now. What does that mean, exactly?”

Well, there you have it. Did you make New Years resolutions? How are they coming along? Or are you more of a year-round goal setter?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Vashli Zazuna!

I hear tale that the hot ticket item in the US for Christmas this year was some kind of robot hamster. Well, I'm here to tell you all that I got something waaay better: a REAL hamster!

Reziko took note of my extreme love for cuddly, fuzzy animals and got me a little blondie, like me. We named her Vashli, which means “apple” in Georgian, in honor of this video, which Reziko and I got a real kick out of:

Here is a darkish webcam pick of Vashli:

She began her residence in the Gvarjaladze home in a plastic 20-liter wine jug, but it quickly became evident that she needed more space. My godfather, Iva, came to the rescue, hooking us up for cheap with a huge glass aquarium courtesy of his friends at the glass store next to his house.

Now Vashli spends here days sleeping in the foot of an old sock I gave her and her nights crawling all over us or trying to “swim” up the walls of the aquarium to reach the edge of the curtains hanging just on the other side of the glass. In this pursuit she also repeatedly jumps from the little fake wooden Christmas tree, or chichilaki, we gave her to gnaw on. This tickles me to no end, because she doesn't jump from four paws, but rather stands on her hind legs like a dinosaur and sort of hops toward the glass. Despite her lack of success, she's very determined, and will jump toward those curtains dozens of times a night. Too cute!

Last night I actually gave her the edge of the curtain, just to see what she'd do. Poor thing latched on and then just hung there, lacking the strength to hoist her round and fuzzy self further up. This makes me worry less about potential escape should the curtain accidentally hang into the aquarium one day.

It is perfectly allowable by US government agencies to bring a hamster into the country, but we'll have to talk with the airline and really consider whether Vashli would survive such a long and stressful trip. But we still have some time before those decisions have to be made, so for now I'm just enjoying having my little hamster around.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Trying to understand

I read an article in the New York Times today that gave me some insight into my own biases when it comes to understanding the mentality of my Georgian family and friends. You can read the article here, but in a nutshell, it was about how cultural understandings influence the manifestation of metal illness, and how Western ideas and methodologies and approaches are being “exported” at locomotive speed. The entire article was fascinating, but the part that struck me in relation to my family was where the author pointed out that Americans' sense of self as an individual and the influence we believe we have over our destinies, the power of personal will to change circumstances, if only we try hard enough – all of this influences how we react to mental illness. Other cultures place more value on a person's role in the kinship group or on their place in the line of ancestry, and this helps them deal with mental illness in a way that is more accepting of the condition.

I can't pretend to be an anthropologist or an expert in sociology, but through my interactions with Georgians over the past year or so, it has become very clear that they more closely fit the kinship group model. People are defined by their role in the family (patriarch, first son, second son, mother-in-law, godfather, etc), and families are defined by their relation to one another. For example, Eliko is my godmother. Because she christened me, there can be no intermarriage between our families for nine generations, because we are now considered one family; such a marriage would be considered incest in just as if we had a blood tie. Similarly, christening can only go in one direction, that is, I cannot christen the children of anyone in Eliko's family, but her brother could christen my children. When one person or family experiences misfortune, the family and neighbor community gathers round to provide support. And these are all great things.

But one thing I could never wrap my brain around is the rampant homophobia I've encountered here. This, in fact, is the one aspect of Georgian culture that I simply cannot grin and bear. However, while I am in no way comparing homosexuality to mental illness (Georgians would), the article gave me a new way to think about this issue. When I discussed homosexuality with Georgians before, my arguments were always very individual based: people are born gay and can't change that fact any more than a person can change the fact that they were born in a particular country; God made everyone the way they are and it's not our place to judge; and someone being gay has no effect on our lives – just live and let live.

This last argument in particular has little meaning for my Georgians – in their minds and cultural understanding, gay people do affect our daily lives, because by going against strongly held communal norms, they threaten the very foundation of those values. Religion plays a key role here, of course, and is most often cited in Georgian arguments against accepting gay people as they are. But religion isn't all of it, I think. Gay couples can't have children (at least not the traditional way), which means they can't have a family. “If they have no family, how can I tell where their family is in relation to mine?” I imagine the Georgian line of thinking. Being childless is considered a heavy burden in this culture, so anyone who “chooses” to live a life that leaves them childless is selfishly turning their back not only on their traditions and culture, but on all of Georgia – a people that has survived over the centuries despite nearly constant invasions, never dying out even when their population dwindled to a few hundred thousand (there are about 4 million Georgians around the world today).

This is all speculation. I haven't checked this out on any of my Georgians, but I sort of wonder if they'd have enough perspective on the issue to give me an objective answer. Of course, I haven't changed my beliefs, and I would love to see Georgian culture become more accepting. But, I think I at least understand their viewpoint now – I've gotten past my own emotional reactions to what I perceived as thoughtless bigotry. I feel that I'm one step closer to a fuller understanding of this culture which has become a permanent part of my life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Procession of the Cross

On Orthodox Christmas (January 7) I participated in my very first крестный ход, or Procession of the Cross. Usually this procession simply winds its way around town, with more and more people joining as it passes by their homes, but this year I lucked out: the procession was to escort the Cross for the top of the new church being built up the closest mountain.

I've been up this mountain before. At the end of June my soon-to-be godfather, Iva, took me and Reziko up to see the convent there. We were give a tour by Sister Barbara after riding most of the way up the mountain in a sort of scary Soviet-era bus and then walking the rest of the way. This time we'd be walking the whole way up.

Reziko and I got off to a late start due to a (typical) morning bathroom traffic jam, so the first half hour of our procession was us walking very fast to catch up with everyone. Once we caught up, it was a very cool thing to be a part of. There were probably 500-700 of us, from priests, deacons, and alter boys to lay men and women, teenagers, even some very small children. Two bulls (or oxen?) pulled a cart filled with donations for orphans to be distributed by the nuns at the convent, and a little donkey, representing the donkey that Mary rode into Bethlehem, hauled a cart with a large cross and an icon. The poor donkey pooped out before we even got out of Batumi, so he didn't make the journey up the mountain.

But the rest of us did! It took over an hour just to get to the base of the mountain (we took the scenic route). The road started out as asphalt, then just past the cemetery became cobblestones (at least a century old!), then the cobblestones gave way to a mix of dirt, gravel, and mud. Even for Batumi it was unusually warm for January, and I carried my coat for the entire trip. Fresh air, beautiful views, and participation in an ancient and holy tradition – I can't think of a better way to spend Christmas day.

Reziko and I kept up a good pace, and once we got to the mountain the crowd became a long, thin line snaking up the old roads. Even at our clip we reached the summit two and a half hours after leaving the house – and this is the littlest mountain around here! The church bells rang out every once in a while, calling us further up and providing encouragement.

At the church I expected there to be a formal service of some kind, but there was none. There were candles to be lit in prayer, and, of course, the new Cross was blessed before being raised and affixed atop the church. The church itself, still under construction, was closed.

We were among the first to arrive, and the summit slowly but steadily filled with other processioners until it became quite crowded. After lighting candles, we watched the Cross as it was raised into place on the church, then turned our weary legs towards home. At the edge of town we gave in and took a marshrutka the rest of the way, and arrived home around 5 PM.

I look forward to the day the church will be completed, when I can ride up on those creaky buses or get a workout climbing the hill myself, reach the top, look around, and feel my heart burst from the beauty of this place. I will offer up my prayers to God and the Saints among the mountains by the sea, where I feel closer to Him than anywhere else.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Post Office Scavenger Hunt

My mom sent us a Christmas care package by regular post. The Georgian postal system isn't 100% trustworthy, so I was a little nervous about it getting here at all. So I was quite surprised and pleased when, just three weeks after Mom sent it, the post office delivered a notice saying I should come pick up my package.

Just a couple of problems. First, until just a few months ago, the central post office was housed in its historical building near the town square. However, that area has become prime tourism real estate, and nothing so lowly as a mere post office can take up said space, so they moved it.

But they didn't tell anyone to where, and everyone we asked had a different answer as to the new location of the post.

Secondly, an address was written on the notice, but the street name was an old, Soviet name. Street names here change faster than Liz Taylor's husbands, depending on who's in power and who's in favor. So we didn't know exactly where this street was located.

Reziko thought it was over by the park, so we headed that way first. On the way we asked some elderly ladies where the post office was, and they pointed us to some courtyard. Dubious that the central post office would be tucked away in some yard, we headed there anyway, Reziko grumbling the usually American complaint about the lack of building numbers. Then, another woman pointed us to an apartment. This apartment, while obviously serving some sort of official function, was closed. There were three phone numbers on the door, which Reziko promptly called. The first connected us with a woman who only dealt with letters from the court. She gave us the number of a guy who worked at the international post, but who said they had no packages from America. And neither of them knew the street that was written on our notice, nor could they tell us the location of the main post. We were flummoxed and annoyed. Imagine if I'd received such a package without a native Georgian speaker to help me out! As it was we were stumped.

It was close to closing time, so we gave up. The next day was Orthodox Christmas, so we didn't even try. Finally, following a new lead from friend Tamazi, we found the post office on Friday. And then we ate chocolate for a week straight. So it was all worth it.