Saturday, October 8, 2011

Relationships in Georgia

This is a topic I have been hesitant to write on for the last year, but now after some rather curious and insightful events into Georgian culture as it pertains to relationships, I feel the time is right. I am still not at expert level for this topic, but I’ve been a conscientious observer.

The Basics

In simplest terms, what is considered normal in America, can be construed very differently in Georgia. Seemingly benign behaviors from an American viewpoint will result in questions, looks, and confrontations from the host family. (More on that in a minute). In America, hanging out with the opposite sex is just that: hanging out. You go to movies, make dinner, whatever; it is harmless. In Georgia, from what I have been able to discern, that is more on the level of American dating. Here when they find out you are dating, the next question is: Rodis aris tqveni kortsili? (When is your wedding?) Consequently, dating here is like being engaged in the United States. Moreover, it appears (based on what I see at the university) that most of Georgia’s young people have to hide their relationships from their family or the public in general, as in Georgia everyone knows everyone and they like to talk. More than once I have walked by couples hiding in a small thicket of trees by the university to simply hold hands away from prying eyes. It is weird. They give me dirty looks for interrupting, but can I help that the path goes right by them? No.

Displays of Affection

Furthermore, displays of affection have very different meanings. In Springdale, hugs are freely given on the streets, at the library, at Sol Foods, it doesn’t matter. When we see our friends there, it is the most appropriate way to greet them. Here hugging is almost scandalous! Something which saddens me. With my close male friend here, sometimes we can hug; sometimes (depending on who is around) we have to shake hands, which I feel is rather awkward. It feels like we just got out of a business meeting instead of being friends. Last year some of the students I tutored came to me saying that they saw my friend (also their neighbor) kissing on the street. I was just as shocked by this as they were, and when I spoke to her about it she said she was simply holding hands. Apparently here handholding is like kissing. Wow…benign in America, scandalous here. I also find it odd that here it perfectly acceptable for two guys to walk arm in arm on the street, but a couple really isn’t supposed to do that. Curious.

Yesterday at the university during our lecture, I asked my students what winking means in Georgia. In America, we all know basically when to wink and it what contexts it is appropriate. I had previously been told that it is like waving. This person wasn’t Georgian, and according to my students she was very wrong as it means a guy is flirting with you. Great. They then got very excited at the prospect of a Georgian boyfriend for me. I didn’t mention to them that there are two guys who wink at me…a lot. Two guys I see on an almost daily basis.

Host Family Confrontations

While still living with host family #2, one morning they confronted me about my “boyfriend.” With my limited Georgian capabilities, I at first thought they were talking about the cats in the yard by the building because the word for cat and man in Georgian are pretty close. At this point I was thoroughly confused and I kept saying “I don’t know!” because at that point I couldn’t remember “I don’t understand!” Saying “I didn’t know” made them mad, to which they replied, “Shen itsi!” (You know!) Then I realized that they were talking about my close friend I mentioned previously. They thought we were dating because I went places in his car. Great. Between that, us hugging in the yard, and him walking over to meet me, the host family and the neighbours thought I had a boyfriend. Moreover, they were mad that he had not properly introduced himself. The whole confrontation was really awkward, and I felt unnecessary considering I am 31 years old and who I associate with was none of their business. Furthermore, explaining that he wasn’t my boyfriend, just my friend was made more difficult by the fact that the words “friend” and “boyfriend” in Georgian are the same. Eventually, I gave up trying to get them to believe that he wasn’t my boyfriend, and just said he was a “kai bitchi” (a good boy) from a “dzalian kai ojaki” (a very nice family). One morning I was even late for school due to trying to explain, yet again, that he wasn’t my boyfriend. When I apologized to my co-teacher, she was upset that the host family would pry into my life so much. It was refreshing to hear from a Georgian that it was none of their business.

While the whole supposed boyfriend fiasco was unfolding with Host Family #2, at school the same thing happened. I was using my laptop in the cafeteria one day, and one of the cleaning ladies saw the wallpaper on my screen. It was just a picture of a friend and I being silly in Rockville over the summer. She thought it was my boyfriend. She asked, and I replied, “Kho, chemi megobari.” (Yes, he is my friend.) Only after I said that did I realize what I said, and it was too late to take it back. Now she thinks I have a boyfriend in the United States, and every time she sees me she gives me this huge smile and a thumbs up. Oh well.

But the ideas about my supposed romantic relationships in Georgia do not end there. Upon moving to host family #3, the place I currently am living and which I love dearly, I was informed that the family thought when my close friend informed them that I was going to be moving in for the year that he had secretly gotten married. I am sure that the family is really suspicious of our friendship. Yesterday morning while working on a university project in my room in the morning, his mom came into check on us. It was like being back at BYU. This morning when we were headed out, one of the students from school saw us together…twice. I am sure I will hear about that on Monday at school.

It should be interesting to see what happens this year. One of my host brothers is taking very seriously the task of finding me a Georgian husband. He already believes that I would make a perfect Georgian housewife because I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t carry on. Little does he know I would not be a Georgian wife who stays at home all day cooking, ironing, and cleaning. In his quest to find me a Georgian husband, he has enlisted the help of the owners of the business he works at. He works at the Adjarabet Casino in Batumi. I can only imagine what sort of guys casino owners will bring.

American Food Abroad

Living abroad means separation from all that is normal and routine in one’s life, a statement which is obvious. Things may be very similar, but yet not quite the same as one is accustomed to at home. However, until one has done it for an extended period of time, it is hard to convey how simple things from home can make one’s day. Often this involves food, especially if it is American, you’re American, and it is something impossible to buy in Georgia. While many of the same brands exist in Georgia, there is just something about it being from America in English-language packaging that makes it so appealing. Or the brands you know are here, but the product formulation is slightly different. For some reason I get really upset that blue M&M’s don’t exist here. It bothers me greatly. I recently discovered some imitation Chee-tos at the store made in Iran, that do a fair job, but still not quite the same. However, I would recommend that the American brand start to make chili flavored ones, like the Iranian company. Do I eat Chee-tos in the US? Absolutely not, but here they are a nice reminder of home. The irony of an Iranian product reminding me of America isn’t lost on me.

Moreover, American Food Excitement seems to always involve food you would not be seen eating in America, or would not admit to eating and/or liking. This is especially true with fast food. Do I eat at any fast food restaurant in the US? Very rarely. When I talk to my university students about the Burger King across the border in Turkey, they are shocked that I don’t eat fast food in America. They have the idea that all Americans eat fast food all the time. No, that is not the case, but a large portion of America eats it with stunning regularity. However, they are impressed when I tell them that the fries and milkshakes taste EXACTLY the same as they do in the United States. Last week when at the Kemal Pasa Burger King, I noticed the staff is still the same as it was when I last visited in April. Employee turnover at Turkish fast food establishments is shockingly low, compared to its American counterparts. Moreover, the guy there recognized me! It probably isn’t good to be recognized at a fast food establishment at a country you do not live in; however, how many blonde, American females living in the Batumi, Georgia area frequent that Burger King? Um, just one.

At the university, we now have another Peace Corps volunteer. Dave and I frequent the neighbourhood khatchapuri stand. One day Dave asked if I would like a Taco Bell Hot Sauce packet for my khatchapuri. Ummm…YES! Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I consumed anything from Taco Bell. I think it was while I was at university in 2003. I was sick for a lot of my last months of university, and for most of that time I had no appetite. When I was actually hungry, what did I eat? Nachos fromTaco Bell. I still find that fact rather unsettling. It was the only thing that appealed to me besides Cheez-It crackers and baby carrots. Having that hot sauce on my khatchapuri rocked my khatchapuri world! I will be going to Taco Bell to get hot sauce when I am back in the United States. That is not something I thought I would ever admit to. Last week another Peace Corps volunteer I know mentioned he had a Pop-Tart for breakfast, and I was envious. I never thought I would be envious over a preservative filled breakfast pastry.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Adventures in Overseas Laundry

Much like baking overseas, doing laundry has often been a struggle for me. This seems to be something many people living abroad for extended periods of time struggle with, especially if they are American. My cousin who lives in Norway does. She rants about it often to me. I never would have expected there to be laundry problems in an idyllic place as Norway.

In Georgia, I’ve had to deal with things I never thought possible in America, such as buying washing powder for machines versus hand washing. Or the fact that Tide is viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. My second host family wouldn’t let me use it. I even wrote the company about the image problem their product here has; I never received a response.

But while living with host family #2, adventures in overseas laundry went to a whole new level. It was here the “washing contraption” briefly (thankfully) entered my life. I use the word “contraption” because calling it a machine was very ambitious, and basically was glorified hand washing. As you can see it is a barrel with a maybe 1/100th horsepower motor in it. It smacked of the Soviet era. When describing it to my old host sister, she confided to me that her family had one until as recently as 2004 or 2005. Vaimee deda! The barrel had to be filled with water manually, and drained manually. There is a small dial on it giving you the option of either 2 or 4 minutes of extremely gentle, almost imperceptible, spinning. After the “spin” cycle, you had to manually rinse and wring out the clothes. I was not allowed to change the water between loads, so the water was so nasty after 3 loads of wash. I doubt my darks were even remotely clean by the end, and probably dirtier than before I started. The contraption simply created the illusion of clean. Washing my clothes in the manky water of Keyhole Canyon in Zion, even with a dead deer in it, probably would have resulted in cleaner clothes.

While doing laundry the one time I used it, I thought, “Writing a blog post about this isn’t going to result in a washing machine like in Israel.” When I was in Nazareth, I wrote about having to hand wash clothes. The owner of the inn where I worked somehow found my blog, read the post, and decided that a washer was a good idea. A week later a washing machine was in my apartment. The entire time I was doing laundry at the host family’s apartment, I kept telling myself that it was “character building.” However, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. Now I have a delightful Russian language Samsung front-loading washer. I will be taking advantage of its cleaning capabilities tomorrow. After my recent experiences with laundry I will never again complain if I have to use a Laundromat. I will consider a great blessing.

Yet Another Host Family

The return to Georgia has suffered because the living situation has been, at best, tenuous. Friday I moved to my 3rd host family in just over a month. I do not intend on moving again until I return to the United States in either May or June.

The second family, well, it wasn’t working. There was a myriad of reasons, but largely they were not honoring their commitments as a host family. However, they still expected all the benefits of being a host family, such as money and free English lessons. It was hard to give them either when I would go 10 days at a time without being provided meals. I once tried to get a glass of water, and even that was not well received. When Georgians hear how this family treated me, they are ashamed and embarrassed, as hospitality in Georgia is highly regarded. This family did not have a usual Georgian last name. They may not even have been Georgian to begin with.

But I will not dwell on the past. I now live with an absolutely amazing host family, one that I chose. A few days after moving to host family #2, it became very apparent that things would not work there. At that time I was approached by a close friend in Batumi about moving to his parents’ home. It took a long time before I felt comfortable with the idea. I didn’t want it to impact our relationship. As things steadily worsened, the more a move to the Diasamidze house felt right. Moreover, considering how much I hated life and Georgia there, it became the only viable option. The entire family has welcomed me with open arms. I now have 2 older brothers, who look out for their younger sister, and parents who make sure I am eating. This morning as I was leaving for school, Tamazi, the host dad, asked if I ate. I said I did, which resulted in the reply, “Kai gogo.” (Good girl). I also have a wonderful host sister-in-law, and an absolutely adorable host niece, who is 7 months old. She cries less than the 7 and 10 year old boys in the previous host family. Much less.

And the host family has a washing machine! (The next blog post will talk about the washing contraption at host family #2’s house). When I first saw it, I touched it in literal disbelief about what I was seeing. Unless you have gone without a washing machine it is hard to articulate how having one is such a blessing. At least in America there are Laundromats. Here nothing like that exists.