Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tbilisi: The Business Trip

In my years in the business world, I have only taken business trips to places the vast majority of people 1) will never go on a business trip to or 2) will never visit period. The 3 places that come to mind first are: Death Valley National Park, California; Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah; and Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

My host brother arranged his business trip for the Government of Adjara for the same days I would be gone; consequently, we got to road trip (actually train trip) together. The ride was uneventful, and in that this would only happen in Georgia way, we ended up seated across from his best friend's wife. Good times. It was mildly horrifying to wake up from my nap to seeing a Jon Malkovich movie being watched by my host brother on his laptop. Jon, along with Willem DaFoe and Christopher Walken, really unnerve me.

Back to Tbilisi. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a city that has over 25% of the entire country's residents and is built along a river in a valley, making it only 5 km wide, but 45 km long. It is a maze of streets built onto hillsides with beautiful and distinctive architecture in some areas to the cold, utilitarian apartments from Soviet times for the proletariat in others. This trip finally made me a fan of Tbilisi. If the Soviets got one thing right in 70 years of rule, it was putting in a subway system. It remains unclear to me why my host brother hates it so much.Until now Tbilisi was just a burden for me, as I am only allowed to fly in and out of that airport for work, despite the fact there is an international airport 3 km down the road from my house. Not like I am bitter about this or anything. Also, the prospect of a long train ride or a mini-bus ride just to visit was less then appealing as well. It is much more appealing to ride for 30 minutes to the boarder and visit Turkey because that means passport stamps and a visit to Burger King. Plus I can do that in less time then it takes to get half-way to Tbilisi.

The visit to Tbilisi was to discuss and meet with the other bloggers involved with the recently begun Guest Blogger project for the official TLG blog. It was interesting to meet the other bloggers, as many of them had only been in the country a few weeks. As a veteran of Group #1, I can honestly (and quite proudly) say that only 2 people have been with TLG longer than me. The recent arrivals have come to a much differ TLG than I knew at the start. They have precedent and others to turn to for advice besides the program; my group just had a lot of faith and not much else. We quickly learned to fend for ourselves out in the wilds of Adjara and Batumi, as TLG was 6-9 hours away depending on the mode of transportation. Moreover, part of me hopes I never came off to others the way some of the recently arrived teachers did yesterday at a bookstore in Tbilisi. I have no idea who they were, but all they did was complain about everything. It was obnoxious and disheartening, as by doing so they were setting themselves up on missing out on a lot. Unfortunately, I probably did the same in 2010 as well.

The highlight of the meetings was having breakfast with Dmitri Shaskini, Minister of Education, yesterday at the Marriott. He was impressed that I lived in the mountains outside of Las Vegas. Here Las Vegas has some sort of mythic quality, like it isn't real, something more akin to Middle Earth. Then the program director told him I had been here since the beginning, which won me more points it seemed. Finally, I think I shocked him and several others when I asked him the question I had been wanting to ask since he came to Batumi last year for a discussion:

"Do you think stronger management or stronger leadership is needed to create sustainable change in the education system?"

Or something like that. The example he gave was good, and as one is liable to argue, illustrates how both are needed to be successful. It is a balancing act that must be carefully orchestrated.

The breakfast buffet spread at the Marriott was amazing! When seeing the selection of Kellogg's breakfast cereals available to choose from, I was momentarily left speechless. Ironically, the Marriott breakfast buffet also had the worst khatchpuri I had ever had. Good khatchpuri has to be made in some little shack on the street with questionable levels of cleanliness or lovingly in a home. Not in an industrial kitchen. Also, the French toast was an epic fail.

After breakfast, I met with a couple from California I've gotten to know. We spent the day seeing sights that I had never seen before. After, I met up with my good friend Tom, who is also from Group #1. He used to live nearby, but sadly is in Tbilisi now. We chatted and walked up and down Rustaveli Street, until it was time to meet with Dato Turashvili. Back in November 2010, I wrote a post about accidentally meeting the famous and best-selling author (after JK Rowling) in Georgia. After that chance meeting, he made my friend and I promise that we would meet up with him whenever we were in Tbilisi. Tom had read Dato's most famous book, and was excited to be able to tell his 12th grade class about actually meeting him, as the students are currently studying the book at school. My freshman English class will soon be doing the same. Upon leaving the coffee shop we always meet at, Dato hurried a head. It was fun to see Georgians recognize him, and to see their faces light up at seeing someone so famous, by Georgian standards.

The last portion of the trip was perhaps the most trying of the 3 days: the night train back to Batumi. Until Georgia, my whole idea about train travel had come from Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about train travel in India. (Highly idealized train travel it should be noted). Georgian Railways doesn't even come close to this, and any trip involving train travel in Georgian is a huge adventure. On Sunday afternoon, my host brother, his work colleague and I were finally able to buy our return tickets. For the following several hours, my host brother kept talking excitedly about who the 4th person in our small compartment might be. He wanted, in his words, "a hot woman." Sadly, that was not meant to be for him.

Instead, we got Marcel from Dmanisi. (Dmanisi may sound familiar as it is the place where the really old humanoid skeleton was found, Dmanisi Man.) Marcel was at least 4 inches shorter then me, appeared to be mid-fifties, but was really only 34, and almost instantly began telling my host brother and his colleague about his intense liking of me and how he wanted to marry me. This was hilarious for my host brother, who kept winking at me, however, it was awkward/horrifying for me. It remained unclear as to why Marcel was going to Batumi. At times it was translated as he was going on vacation. At others, more disturbingly, it was translated that he was moving here and working on Chavchavadze Street, which is the street merges into my street. I'm hoping for the first option.

The Radisson Blu Hotel Spa

Not drinking in Georgia allows one to save loads of lari, the local currency. Consequently, I decided to splurge on something for myself to make this winter more bearable: A membership at the Radisson Blu Hotel Spa. To put it mildly it is one of the best things I could have done for myself and perhaps more importantly, my sanity.

Winter in Batumi can be a rather trying time. Days of incessent rain can easily bring the most upbeat people into a funk that never seems to end. Loyal readers will know that I struggle with this, especially coming from a desert, where rain is seldom, humidity rarer, and the sun is almost always shining. However, this year knowing that every morning my day starts with a visit to the Radisson has dramatically changed my life. People have noticed and commented. Well, it does do wonders to have access to endless amounts of hot water on a daily basis, a rarity in Georgia. Decadent, true, but totally worth it. As I post on Facebook last week in a post-soviet country the only motivation you need to work out is the prospect of being warm and having hot water. If it were only so simple in the USA.

My time at the spa is divided among swimming and the gym. I recently made the discovery that I like, no love, the elliptical machine, of all things. It is shocking to me as well. I put my headphones on, watch CNN or Al-Jezera and try daily to beat my distance and calories burned for the prior day. After a month of visiting the Radisson, I had been feeling bad that the scale said a loss of only 6 pounds. It seemed odd that it would be that low considering how loose my clothes are getting. Yet, in the past two days 3 different people have commented. Tonight host brother #2 said that "'re kilos are flying away." Thanks Lasha. I appreciate that. But there are still many more kilos to make fly away in the next 2 months.

As it is the off-season for tourism in Batumi, rarely are there other people there. However, on last Saturday there were approximately 6 people using the facilities. I must admit it felt rather crowded. Most days it is empty save for me, my host brother, and our university colleague. At times this can be awkward, very awkward. Case in point, a couple of weeks ago I ran into my host brother in the steam room. Um...yeah. I was greeted warmly with "Charlottenburg!" (My nickname, which I've noticed that he has started introducing me with to people and these people think that it is my real name. Charlottenburg is a part of Berlin, his dream city.) My heart sank, as this was one person I never wanted to see at the Radisson ever. "Oh...hey there." I hate being seen in my bathing suit unless I know I will never see those people again in my life. My host brother I see on a daily basis. Despite being wrapped in a thick terry cloth towel, I felt woefully under dressed. It got more awkward when our colleague shows up and invites us for a visit to the sauna. There I sat between two partially clothed men I see on a daily basis, and know well. Fortunately, the sauna looks out at the Batumi skyline. Enough said.

Until that "encounter" my host brother and I had set up a schedule of using the Radisson. We actually told one another that since so much of our lives are spent together, we need time apart. It was agreed that I would go in the mornings, and him in the evenings. This worked for awhile. Now we both go in the mornings, with the unspoken understanding that we don't really talk to each other. It works well. But, I will say that the day of the steam room encounter I was there at my scheduled time; my host brother wasn't.

A lot of the initial awkwardness of seeing my host brother and colleague at the spa has gone away. Today for example we had a discussion about work outside the sauna. No one seemed to care that we were not even dressed in business casual, and that we all had flip flops on. I'm sure that after my swim this morning, I looked awesome.

Friday, February 10, 2012

TLG Blog Contributor

Beginning this month I will be an official contributor to the Teach and Learn with Georgia blog. Last month I received an email asking me to apply based on what the committee had read here. (I must admit knowing they had read my blog was a little creepy). When one of my entries is posted, I will put a link here.

My first post will be on my one successful attempt at baking in Georgia: Apple Crisp. My house now has a functioning oven, and I am hoping to recreate the same results on Sunday for a suphra.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Adventures in Overseas Laundry: The Winter Edition

Laundry overseas is interesting to say the least. Now in Batumi it is made even more so by the fact winter has descended on the area. Doing laundry in the winter in Batumi requires 4 primary things for success:

  1. Planning
  2. Patience
  3. Pain
  4. Good weather

This is the first aspect of successful laundry during the winter in Georgia. One needs to ensure that several days can be set aside for the clothes to dry, yet still have enough clothes to wear during those days. Without the luxury of clothes dryers, I dry my clothes outside despite the humid weather and wet conditions. Fortunately, at my house there is a covered and partially enclosed porch which helps to keep the weather at bay, which allows for faster drying. Whenever I do laundry I assess what is crucial to wash first, meaning which will take the longest to dry. I have one sweater here that I love, but I hesitate to wear it because the last time I washed it, it took about 5 days to dry.

As much as I hate to, I have no choice but to wear things more than once, a fact that has probably hastened the destruction of my clothes after living here. Much of my overseas wardrobe is comprised of items from the Old Navy clearance rack, simply so that if they are destroyed I haven't lost much. Over the holidays, my mom saw one of my old white shirts from Georgia versus a new one. She was shocked at how the old one had taken on a silver-grey colour. "Is that from living there?" she asked. All I could do was nod. I should probably change my bed linens, but I am concerned about being without even one of my blankets during this cold time of the year.


Drying in humid weather takes a long time...days. Consequently, I might have to wear my less desirable clothes until things are dry, such as today. Today I have to wear my light grey jeans, which I am not that fond of because the others are needed for work or are in the process of drying.

Also one needs to be patient with the European washing machines. For reasons that I cannot begin to understand, a 37 minute cycle does not take 37 minutes. It seems to get stuck on minutes 7 and 12 for about 10 minutes each. Try 1 to 2 hours. I feel like I have to babysit the washing machine. It is really annoying.


Winter laundry can be a truly painful experience. Hanging up cold, wet clothes in a cold, wet environment without the benefit of gloves, is really uncomfortable (to put it mildly). I can't wear gloves because then I can't get the clothespins to work. I try to work quickly, but end up with hands and fingers that burn from being so cold.

Good Weather

This is the last vital requirement for a successful winter laundry adventure. Any bit of sun aids in the drying process. Today is sunny, consequently, anywhere you go in Batumi you will see laundry out drying in the sun. There is something really refreshing about seeing laundry out on a line to dry, an increasingly rare occurrence in the United States. This fact saddens me, as many HOAs go so far as to forbid them. In Southern Utah, I put one up over the summer. A few gusts of the dry air, and the clothes, though scratchy, were good to go. When I worked inside Zion National, I advocated for a clothes line. The National Park Service said one could exist only if it could not be seen from the road. NPS should be promoting such behaviors not inhibiting environmentally sustainable practices. Needless to say, the location of the building prevented a clothesline that couldn't be seen. Consequently, machine drying continues.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Winter in Georgia

Cold does not begin to describe winter in Georgia. The "sub-tropical" environment that is Batumi part of the year ceases to exist, and becomes something akin to International Falls, Minnesota (America's Icebox) times like 100.

I thought I knew what cold was having grown up in Minnesota. After all, being in Owatonna meant that school never was called off for weather. (Our school district was notorious in this regard). I've walked to school in -26 F temperatures with a -76 F windchill. But Minnesota is a dry cold. Temperatures in Batumi never really go below 32 F (0 C), but because of the proximity to the Black Sea, the cold here is something unbelievable even for someone from Minnesota. When I was back in Minnesota in December and January, it was unseasonably warm this year. Also, having central heating standard in homes is a God-send.

Batumi's cold is a frigid, damp, humid cold...a cold that gets inside of you and literally does not leave for months despite all efforts to get warm. Trying to get warm is almost a futile effort, because you can't. It is horrible. As I type this, I am in the "warm" room of my house, yet I can still see my breath. Part of me is glad my travel alarm clock with temperature feature broke, because then I can't be appalled by how cold it really is in my house. My house has had gas heating installed, however, it is not yet operational. I hope that it becomes operational in the very near future, as in right now. Snow and rain are also a near constant part of the mix, making it extra fun. The forecast for the next 10 days goes from happy suns to 6 days of seemingly endless angry, frowny, grumpy, grey rain clouds. So much to look forward to.

Teaching will be interesting at the university. My office has a heating/cooling unit which runs at 28 C all the time (and the 3 of us still complain of being cold), but at Batumi State University having heat in the classrooms is something that doesn't seem to happen. It may still be viewed as something "decadent" from the capitalist West for all I know. Perhaps investing in a portable heater that I will carry from class to class is a good idea; however, classrooms are also limited in outlets. Consequently, I have to decide between 1) teaching class with a laptop and PowerPoint or 2) being warm. Decisions, decisions.

The next question one might ask is, "Charlotte, how does one attempt to combat this?" Answer: very carefully, with a multi-faceted approach.

First, the layering of clothes night and day is essential, crucial, and critical to success. On an average day, I wear at least 3 shirts, my trusty ZAC Black Marmot fleece jacket, 2 pairs of socks, pants with leggings underneath, waterproof leather boots, scarf, wool jacket, and now 2 pairs of gloves. Sleeping is really hard. I'm already in my pajamas, with 2 pairs of pants and 2 long sleeved shirts and 2 pairs of socks. I will sleep under 3 blankets and 1 thick comforter. I sort of make a little cocoon of it all and hope I don't need to get up during the night. Despite all this, I will still be cold. I must admit that I've cried myself to sleep more than once because I've been so cold, and that much of the clothes a departed Peace Corps volunteer left me to give to a second hand store has been commandeered by me for layering purposes. When I finally leave Georgia, it will go to its intended destination.

There is also a small space heater in my room. Yesterday morning there was some rather lively action coming from the extension cord it was attached to. My room has 2 outlets, neither of which work. At about 3 a.m. yesterday I was awoken by a loud bang, and couldn't tell if it was real or I had simply dreamed it. Then I saw an odd orange glow in my room. It was an electrical fire. It burned itself out quickly, but it left a rather sizeable burn mark on the parquet wood floor. I called my host brother on the phone despite him being across the hall. His rather chill response indicated to me that this was nothing new to him.

Next, I've developed a taste for tea. I drink a lot of it to stay warm. The proximity to Turkey provides easy access to an ample supply of delicious apple and blackberry teas. I also have a stash of 30 packets of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa in my drawer.

Finally, I joined the Radisson Batumi Spa and Health Club. I will admit that the ability to be warm, hot even, and access to a limitless supply of hot water were higher factors than the ability to work out, but not by much. As it is the off season, there is rarely anyone there in the morning besides me. Perhaps the name should be changed to "Charlotte's Private Spa and Health Club." I work out, then I get my hot shower for the day. Tomorrow I am finally going to try the pool, Finnish sauna, and steam room. I will probably be there close to 5 hours, with a repeat on Sunday. I know that such a move is so decadent and Western, but it truly is a main key to keeping my sanity in what is a Georgian winter. And many people in Georgia have it much more worse than I do. Life in the village would be unbearable right now.