Exactly one year ago, I was going over my checklist of things to pack for Georgia and wondering what the heck I had decided to do. My mom had already told me her fears for me: that I would be sold into prostitution, kidnapped by Russians or bride-napped by an old man. I myself didn’t have many specific fears because this was going to be an adventure in the unknown and I hardly knew what to be scared of. I was taking a blind step like never before, and the only solid reason I knew I wouldn’t die was because I had emailed a number of volunteers already in Georgia and they had convinced me with their tales that this was legit. With that knowledge I didn’t mind not knowing where I would be living, with whom I would be staying or what my teaching situation would be like. I kind of liked not knowing because then I wouldn’t form preconceived notions. I just knew I’d be the foreign oddball in whatever community I was placed in and that I would work with whatever situation was handed to me… and it was only a year. I could do anything for a year.
Now, after almost a full year, I am dreading my departure. I am starting to think about reassimilating into American culture and how hard it will be. Somehow this year I have become part Georgian and these habits will not die easy… if they ever die at all. For example, I have become a true villager. I don’t have to worry about missing a day…or two…..or three of showering, I’m not expected to wear a new outfit every day and I help myself from any dish on the table with my hands and/or dirty fork. This is all smiled upon here and I kind of like the informality. Even when I don’t smell my best, I can take comfort in the fact that no one is going to call me out on it or probably even notice. To go back to a world where I have to put effort into being polite and smelling good? No thanks!
I should probably mention that I have been living in villages all year. This wasn’t my specific choice in orientation, because let’s face it, nobody gets a choice (unless TLG has changed their procedure on this), but I’m very glad it happened this way. Although my first village experience isn’t worth mentioning, my second has been amazing. I have learned a lot about keeping a fire going, washing my hair outside in the dead of winter (surrounded by chickens) and using an outhouse on a daily basis. I’ve learned to sleep every winter night in a heatless room and not complain much because Georgians do this every year. Because of things like these, it’s become clear to me that I don’t need as much as I think I do in terms of comfort and amenities. It’s been fun hanging out with my host family, talking and getting a sense of the real community life that exists here unlike many places on the planet. I love how the neighbors all know each other and often hang out on the street with no agenda except to be together. This simplicity has been challenging at times (village life is veeeeery slow) but very good for me in other ways. I had decided when I came to avoid getting internet for myself, both because it is expensive and because I didn’t want to be on it all the time. It was a good choice. It’s been good to detox from the bombardment of Facebook and endless hours wasted doing nothing online. Because of this, I’ve had more free time to experience countless spontaneous happenings, attend many supras and if nothing else to do the reading I never had time to do in America.
Moving on to practical things, I have also learned in Georgia new ways to be thrifty, which my friends back home won’t believe because I was already one of the thriftiest people they knew. Across the ocean I am a recreational dumpster diver and thrift store shopper, to the point where I don’t buy new things unless it’s an absolute necessity (which it rarely is, with these hobbies). Georgians do this as well (well, the clothing part), I was happy to find out! They buy things from second hand markets, and not only that, when things break or rip they will fix them like masters until they can’t anymore. My host mom once fixed a HUGE hole that had mysteriously appeared in my skirt, for example, and now it looks like new. This isn’t cheap, it’s just smart! Also, I don’t think I can ever throw a plastic bag away again without feeling guilty. Georgians reuse them so many times that I have begun to think they might actually be worth money. In fact, they do buy nice, thick plastic bags (like ones you might get from the Gap) for a lari or two and use them for everything from lugging food to a supra to carrying their books to school. It always looks like they just came home from a shopping spree, but that’s almost never the case. One time I had a few extra crappy plastic bags and I casually asked my host mom if she would use them – she swooped in like an eagle and took them all, like she was afraid I’d take them back. If I had known about this, I’d have brought some of those $1 reusable bags you get at grocery stores and given them as gifts to everybody, because they would go a long way here. On another cheap note, did you know that one teabag is actually for an entire pot of tea, not just a cup? That means you really can use it in four or five cups before it stops working! Another thing learned from the Georgians.
Things have also been learned in terms of food. I already knew that you really can eat food beyond the expiration dates and also that eggs, cheese (not including grated) and butter do not need refrigeration. However, I have been continuously surprised by the edibility of already-cooked chicken that’s been magically pulled out of the cupboards from the days before. At first I was wary, but now I know that either we are too cautious in America or Georgian chicken is magic. I was also surprised by their habit of leaving meat stew on the stovetop overnight, for days on end. Same idea… apparently it’s fine because nobody’s died yet! I look at it as strengthening my immune system. Not that I will adopt all of these habits back home, but just knowing we have some leeway is comforting. It’s also cool that Georgians eat everything until it’s gone. They live on leftovers, which are nice because they are easy to heat back up. The only bad thing is when the leftovers include the gray, jiggly parts of a pig’s head and they just WON’T GO AWAY.
It now makes sense to say that much of what I’ve learned about Georgian culture has been from supras. My Georgian friend says that supras are academic, and you can learn everything about Georgia at a supra… this is extremely true. Here they talk about history, God, traditions, you name it! You start to see why they do what they do and it’s hard not to honor and love what they honor and love with every toast. This took me a long time to see, so I’m really glad I have been here a whole year rather than just a few months. It takes that long to enter into a different reality enough to accept parts of it as your own.
Another way I’ve learned about the region is by traveling a lot. Although I obviously haven’t seen everything in Georgia (there’s so much), I have been to most of the cities and regions, as well as Turkey and Armenia. In my travels alone I have found I am braver than I was and now I understand that some small risks are worth taking. For example, hitch hiking, couchsurfing and camping out in random places aren’t just ways to save money, they are also ways to get to know amazing local people, have random adventures and more than likely experience the huge hospitality that exists in this corner of the world. I could write a whole blog about hospitality in and of itself, but let’s just say for now that it’s basically changed my entire definition of the word.
So, thinking about leaving makes me feel overwhelmingly sad. Most of the best parts about this experience have been about making the Georgian life my life for a time. My life has been enriched and I can’t think the same way as I did before I entered a culture so very opposite my own. The more Georgian language I knew the more I learned what these people are about, and many times I had to stop and contemplate the fact that I was now in a culture where it really IS offensive to not drink more wine, or accept every bit of hospitality thrown at me, even if I really didn’t want another piece of cake. Was it a perfect year with no problems? No. But would I take it back or make it different? Absolutely not. Sakarvelos gaumarjos!