A Small Country With a Big Heart

Posted on March 20, 2012 by


As the first few notes of “Mambo number 5” came out over the loudspeakers, my co-teacher grabbed my hand and I was tugged to the dance floor. Within seconds, we were dancing with a majority of the staff from my Kutaisi school. And before the first chorus started, a group of 11th grade boys had joined the dance. As one of the 11th graders danced in front of me, lost in the beat, I looked around. Most of my co-workers, including the assistant director, were dancing with the 11th graders. I turned my shock into a laugh, smiled and reminded myself – this was Women’s day in Georgia. And in Georgia, anything goes. Nothing about Women’s Day was what I had expected, but it’s now a day I’ll never forget.

Until about 8pm on Wednesday night March 7th, I knew two things about Women’s day: I didn’t have to go to school and was going to dinner at 5pm with the teachers from my school. Hoping for a sunny day, I agreed to join my friend on a 12 km hike to the Sataplia caves. I was planning to return around 330 or 4, which I figured, would give me plenty of time to shower and change before dinner. This plan got quickly derailed by a 45 second exchange with my host mother, also one of my co-teachers.

First, she said that we needed to leave at 3pm because her hair appointment was at 3:30pm. Then, all too enthusiastically, she asked what I was going to wear. At this, I paused. I had been planning on wearing jeans and a sweater, which has been my standard outfit for the last six weeks. But between her excitement and hair appointment, I was starting to think jeans would be unacceptable.

When I was packing, I assumed that I would be living in the middle of a tiny village in Georgia; where mud and dirt would be staples in my life but blow dryers, makeup, heels, and fancy clothes would be completely unnecessary. And so, I packed a few summer dresses and one ‘fancy dress,’ but no heels, makeup or hair styling devices.

To satisfy my host mother, I pulled out the fanciest of my dresses – a slim fitting, black dress with red flowers but no sleeves. I went to pull out the matching cardigan only to discover that I’d accidentally left it 6,405 miles away, in Boulder, Colorado. She assured me that the dress would be alright and that she had an old black jacket that could replace my cardigan. It didn’t really match the dress and was a few sizes too big, but it was definitely better than nothing. Grateful, I took the jacket, foolishly turned down an appointment at the hair salon (I am not a big fan of hair spray or curls and assumed that a good blow drying would be sufficient) and then cancelled my hiking plans.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, without makeup and in my over-sized jacket, flats and straight hair, I felt wholly under-dressed. All of the female teachers (and about 98% of those in attendance) had just come from the hair salon. Between their bouncy, hair-sprayed curls, flashy heels and painted faces, they all looked much more polished than I felt. I don’t think anyone but me noticed, but left me feeling rather awkward as dinner began.

When we arrived, an hour late, but somehow punctual in Georgian time, we entered a relatively empty dining room. Just over 30 people, teachers and significant others, sat, sardine style, around a long table as the standard Georgian supra food came out. Khachapuri, mayonnaise salads, cheese and lobiani for appetizers, served on numerous small plates placed evenly along the table. Then out came the melted cheese and multiple meat dishes. The men, mostly husbands of teachers, each gave their toasts. The live band played classical Georgian music and sang occasionally. As the teachers of Kutaisi school number 23 engaged in a polite and friendly dinner, other diners filed in slowly and soon, the restaurant was packed.

After the first few rounds of toasts had been completed and everyone had eaten too much, a few 11th graders, also from Kutaisi school number 23, burst into a dance. They soon dominated the floor, unleashing some of the best dancing I’ve ever seen. Georgrian folk dancing is like a precise and aggressive ballet. It’s artistic, playful, poetic, athletic and unbelievably quick. After a few Georgian folks songs, Mambo number 5 came pulsing through the restaurant. I was led to the dance floor, as students and teachers danced together as though they had been friends forever. As my initial shock dissolved into acceptance, I came to the conclusion that there has to be something incredibly unique about a country where it’s considered perfectly normal for students and teachers to drink, and dance, together.

After that, the night unfolded in perfect Georgian fashion. More folk songs were played and our students dominated the dance floor again. A professional folk dance troupe performed, showcasing the magic of group dancing. American and Russian pop songs played; and everyone danced, ‘disco style.’ Friends toasted friends; teachers toasted teachers; strangers toasted strangers. And as the night unfolded, I began to fully understand the depth and beauty of something my co-teacher once said: “Georgia is a small country with a huge heart.”