Friday, December 23, 2011

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Christmas truly is my favorite time of the year… decorating, shopping, baking, wrapping, putting presents under perfectly lit trees. I love it all! Not to mention waking up on Christmas morning with sweet little angels who can't wait to see what Santa brought! 

Sydney in her school's Christmas pageant 

I knew when I signed up for the Peace Corps that I would miss not one, but two, Christmases – and it was a sacrifice I was willing to make. But that certainly doesn't make it any easier. Yes, I thought about going home, but a part of me isn't sure if I could say goodbye to my family twice or, let's be honest, leave the comforts of home. And besides, the thing I love the most about the Peace Corps is having the opportunity to be completely immersed in a new culture, especially one as old as Georgia's. So while I know it's going to be extremely difficult to miss Christmas at home, I'm also looking forward to celebrating this magical holiday in a whole new way: Georgian style. 

The Georgian Orthodox Church still follows the Julian calendar, so they actually celebrate Christmas (shoba) on January 7 and New Year's (akhali tseli) on January 14. The night before Christmas, all of the churches in the country begin the solemn liturgy. In Tbilisi, it is held in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, which I think is one of the most beautiful churches in the country. Candles are lit in every house and placed near the window so the lights are visible to passers-by, which is done in remembrance of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem.

After the service, a festive and entertaining parade called Alilo (which is a modified pronunciation of Alleluia) begins. Priests and parishioners (and anyone else who is interested) walk down the street singing carols, and carrying religious icons, crosses and banners high above their heads. Thus, they carry the good news about the birth of Christ. Most of the participants in the Alilo are children, and the adults stand on the street handing out sweets.  

Holy Trinity Cathedral

The western custom of the Christmas tree is increasing in popularity, but mostly in the bigger towns and cities. In small villages, you will rarely see our traditional green tree. Instead, a lot of families will have handmade wooden trees called chichilaki, which are made from young walnut branches shaved so that long, twirling laths hang down vertically, like the wisps of an old man's beard. On the eve of the Epiphany (January 19), the tree is burned to ensure good luck and bad memories from the previous year are thrown away with its ashes.

Twirled walnut branches

And yes, there is a Santa Claus! But in Georgia, he's called "tovlis papa," which translates as "Grandfather Snow." Tovlis Papa is traditionally portrayed with a long white beard and dressed in a national costume with a fur cloak. He looks a lot like our Santa, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't have a workshop in the North Pole or flying reindeer. As for gifts, Georgians don't practice the same tradition of buying Christmas gifts for relatives, friends and coworkers. Instead, they typically buy gifts for children and give them on January 1. 

Tovlis Papa
So, no Santa coming down the chimney on December 25… no presents… no blue spruce with twinkling lights… no eggnog… no stockings. But, I will be surrounded by tons of food and wine, and wonderful people who have welcomed me into their lives. And isn't that what Christmas is all about anyway? However you celebrate this holiday season, I hope you and your families have a very Merry Christmas!

P.S. Don't feel too bad for me… I will still be having an American-like Christmas in Tbilisi with Gus on December 25th, complete with classic Christmas movies, presents sent from home and a real fireplace. We *are* still American, after all… 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What really matters

Last night my family hosted a supra for St. Barbara's Day, also called Barbaroba, who is the patron saint of children. My grandmother spent all day cooking a variety of dishes, while I helped set the table for 12 guests. Around 6:30 p.m., everyone started arriving. The first thing I noticed that seemed a little off was that nobody wished each other a happy St. Barbara's Day. The second thing I noticed was that there were no women; it was all men. Umm, this is weird considering most of them are married – but okay, maybe there's something I don't know about this holiday. 

We all sat down to eat and the wine started flowing. The tamada (toastmaster) started with the typical toasts… a toast to God, to our mothers, to children, to the Virgin Mary, to nature, to our siblings… but nothing for St. Barbara. Later on in the evening, there was a toast for friendship, but it wasn't given by the tamada. My host grandmother's son, Vano, gave it. While he was talking, I looked around the table and noticed all of the men had gotten very quiet and reflective (this was a bit odd since there's usually 5 or 6 people talking over each other during supras). That's when I learned that our supra had nothing to do with this holiday whatsoever. 

About a year ago, my host grandmother's husband of 45 years passed away rather quickly and unexpectedly. From the stories I've heard, he was a brilliant man who worked hard and loved his family dearly. And he was so handsome too! I know he is greatly missed by the entire community.

In Georgia, loved ones are honored one month after their passing, and one year after. December 29 will be the one-year anniversary of his passing, so everyone is now planning for this day. My grandmother has already started making the food, and her son has been coming into town every weekend to prepare the gravesite. This particular weekend, they were building an iron fence around his grave. 

Vano explained to me that all of these men had come together to help built the fence. They had given him strict orders not to buy anything; everyone would contribute something, whether it was cement, tools or the iron itself. He even tried to rent a blowtorch to solder the iron together, and was told by the shop owner, "No, I won't rent this to you! Do you know how long I knew your father? Take it and use it as long as you need."

So that's why everyone was together tonight, sitting around my dining room table… to honor a man they all loved and to celebrate their friendship. 
Georgians may not have the luxuries we have in the States. Their clothes have holes, their houses are in need of repair, they lose power every day, a lot of them don't own cars and they basically live month-to-month. But what they do have are their relationships – both with family and with friends – and that means more to them than anything they can buy in a store.  They are such beautiful people who, despite all of the extreme hardships they have faced in their lifetime, truly love and care about those around them. 

It was a moment I can't really explain, but I can tell you I had tears in my eyes. I was so moved by this obvious respect and love they all felt towards one another, and felt grateful to have been a part of it. When I leave Georgia in 18 months, I will most certainly leave a part of my heart here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Listen to your heart

I was recently faced with the decision of whether or not I wanted to change sites (for reasons I don't want to get into here). I battled over the decision for weeks, changing my mind every other day (and hour), having nightmares about making the wrong decision and completely stressing myself out. (My apologies to those who have crossed my path recently… I know I haven't been very pleasant.)

My decision came down to this simple question: what was more important, work or relationships? Do I stay here knowing my work might not be that fulfilling, but I'll have a great family, friends and counterpart? Or do I move to a new site where the work will be much more fulfilling, but I might not have the relationships I have here? 

As an American, I've always chosen work. I've put in 80-hour weeks, declined birthday party invitations and spent several weekends alone in an empty office building. One reason I wanted to join the Peace Corps was to escape that crazy rat-race lifestyle, if only for two years. Yet here I was… debating whether work was more important than people.

I talked to several people about my decision (several times!) and almost everyone told me the same thing: listen to your heart.  So I did. And I decided my heart belongs in Kvareli, with the people who have welcomed me into their homes and have treated me like a member of their family.  

Since making this decision, I truly feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. Everything just feels different. Lighter. Happier. Like I belong here.

I woke up this morning and noticed the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the snowcapped mountains were sparkling. Then I realized our water had come back on, and to top it off, we had hot water too! So I enjoyed a warm shower for the first time in a month. I walked to work without a coat on and enjoyed the sun beating down on my face. I spent the day editing wine descriptions, planning outings with my fellow Volunteers, reading wonderful emails from home and eating fresh kiwi from our neighbor's yard. Towards the end of the day, my counterpart took me to see the world's second longest wine tunnel (it's 2km long!), which they are developing into an incredible winery and restaurant. I thought he just wanted me to see it, but turns out, they want me to help them with their marketing! When I finally got home tonight, I found my grandmother in the kitchen making my favorite meal – chicken with walnut sauce. 

I know it was just a coincidence that all of this happened on the day after I made my decision, but it felt like all of the pieces were finally coming together: work, family, friends. Having to make this decision, while painful and stressful, renewed my desire to be here. I feel like I made the right decision for the right reasons. I listened to my heart and chose relationships over work. And isn't that what I came here to do?

Just a few reasons I decided to stay... 

Steve and Henry

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My new reality

I know I've written several posts about how great my town is, how much I love my job, and how happy I am here in Georgia. Don't get me wrong... everything I've written has been true. But what I haven't written is that this is, by far, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I miss my family in a way that I can't even describe. I miss little things like being able to read labels (umm, is this shampoo, conditioner or lotion?!?). There are days when I feel more alive than I ever have – and days when I just want to go home. I think it's safe to say I have experienced every single emotion possible over the last 7 months – happiness, sadness, joy, regret, contentedness, uncertainty and gratification – just to name a few. To help you understand, try to imagine that this is your new reality...

My bedroom, before it got cold
You wake up in the morning and your bedroom is a cool 34 degrees; you can literally see your breath as you lie in bed. You stay there for a good 30-45 minutes, debating whether or not you have it in you to leave the comfort of your fluffy, subzero-degree, Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag. You roll over to plug in your tiny 10" heater and feel slightly satisfied that you have some heat in your room (even if you have to stand 6 inches away from it to feel anything). You decide a shower is exactly what you need to wake up, so you walk down the cold hallway to the bathroom. You turn on the hot water and wait... but it never gets hot. This can only mean one thing: the gas is off (which usually means someone in the neighborhood didn't pay their bill). Without gas, a hot shower is out of the question, so instead you wash your face in ice-cold water and just hope that you'll be able to take a hot shower sometime that week. Your hands are now red from the freezing cold water and your nose is running (although you haven't even gone outside yet). You are starting to hate winter, and it's only November. 

Now it's time to get dressed. It's another cold, overcast day (you don't even remember the last time you saw the sun) so you know you need to put on several layers to stay somewhat warm. Your typical outfit includes: tights, long underwear (pants) and jeans; two pairs of socks and winter boots; long underwear (top), a long sleeve t-shirt, a wool sweater and either a down or wool coat, scarf, hat and gloves. You're lucky if any of your clothes are clean and/or fit properly. Because there are no dryers, all of your clothes have been line-dried which means they are faded and stretched out. And now that it's so cold outside, it takes a week for anything to dry so doing laundry has basically become a thing of the past. 

First snow in Kvareli
Snow covered trees

After you bundle up like the little kid from A Christmas Story, you go downstairs to eat some breakfast. Because there is no gas, you have to eat leftovers that have been reheated on the wood-burning stove. This normally includes cheese, tomatoes, fried potatoes or pasta, fish, chicken and bread. As winter rolls in, most of the fruits and vegetables start to disappear. You see the last of your tomatoes sitting on the windowsill, and you know once those are gone, you won't eat another one until summer. Your diet is getting heavier and heavier on the carb side, and you promise yourself you'll start working out once it gets warm again. 

Persimmons (one of the only fruits available in the winter)

You eat in silence most of the time. Your host grandmother is usually busy cooking, canning, cleaning, working in the garden or repairing something. And let's face it... there's this little thing called a "language barrier" that is ever-present. Yes, you did study Georgian for 3 months before moving to site, but unfortunately your skills haven't progressed that much. Word is Georgian is a harder language to learn than Mandarin! 

Speaking of the language, imagine this: More often than not, you're the only English speaker in a room, whether it's at home, at work, on a marshutka or in a store. You can order in a restaurant, ask for directions and talk to the marshutka drivers – but you can't express your feelings, or talk about anything that has happened in the past or might happen in the future. You can really only talk about yourself, in the present (trust me, this doesn't make for the best conversations). For the most part, nobody really knows who you are, gets your sense of humor or understands why you're sad on Thanksgiving Day (nor can you explain what Thanksgiving is). 

My street at sunset
After washing your breakfast dishes in cold water, it's time to go to work. You gather your belongings and head out in the snow. Your street is extremely muddy and full of cow and horse poop, so you have to watch where you walk at all times (and those cute boots you're wearing… they're already ruined and definitely won't survive the 2 years you're going to be here). The wind is relentless and your face is red and tingling by the time you get to work. Your office is a small concrete room that doesn't get any sunlight, has a window that doesn't close all the way, and is always freezing. When you get there, you turn on your light and realize the power is out. No power = no heat. You turn on your laptop anyway and try to get some work done. You decide to research some training topics online, but since it's a snowy, overcast day your Internet is dreadfully slow (who knew the weather could affect your connection?!). After a few hours of sitting in your office alone, your nose and cheeks are red, your fingers are numb and your laptop battery is running low. The meeting you had at 2:00 never happened (and you don't really know why) and it's starting to snow again. At this point, you pack it up and hope that grams has the wood stove going by the time you walk back home.

As you walk home (down the same street you've walked down for the last 4 months), you notice several people literally stop dead in their tracks to watch you. Their jaws drop and they turn their heads as you walk by. No matter where you go, what you say or what you do, people stare at you. They know what you buy at the store, when you leave town, and whether or not you went to work yesterday. At first, you didn't mind it; you were the shiny, new American in town. But after several months, you feel like you don't have any privacy and you just want to scream, "Stop watching me! I'm NOT that interesting!"

You finally get home and can barely feel your fingers. You sit by the fire, try to warm up, and maybe read for an hour or so. You join your host family for dinner (which is the same food you had for breakfast and most likely have had for the last 2-3 days), and engage in limited conversation, usually the exact same conversation you had the night before. After dinner, you either watch a movie, talk to a friend on the phone, or Skype with loved ones back home (assuming you can get online inside your concrete house). It's now midnight and you're ready to call it a day. You wash your face in ice-cold water again, crawl inside your freezing cold sleeping bag and hope you can fall asleep, despite the numbness you feel all over your body.

The next day, you decide to visit a friend in a nearby village. You're excited to get out of your site for a night, but you're not excited about the upcoming marshutka ride. Traveling in Georgia is fairly easy, but rarely enjoyable. First you have to know when the marshutka leaves (which can change at any given moment for a number of reasons). Then you have to stand by the side of the road, flag it down and hope that there are seats available. If there aren't any, it will drive right past you and you'll have to wait an hour for the next one. If there are seats, you'll most likely have to crawl over a few grandmas, drunk men, children and bags to get to the very back, where you're guaranteed the bumpiest and most uncomfortable ride of your life. Most drivers are aggressive, to put it lightly, so forget reading or drinking anything. At least half of your trip will be spent driving on the wrong side of the road with oncoming traffic headed straight towards you. You'll swerve on the shoulder several times to avoid hitting the slow-moving car in front of you; you'll get whiplash from all of the braking (usually from the stray cow that has meandered in the middle of the road); and you'll probably get pulled over by the police at some point (no worries, the driver's friend in the front seat usually knows the policeman, so they will exchange pleasantries and everyone will go about their business). Oh and P.S., car accidents are a leading cause of death in Georgia.

Believe it or not, this is the easy part: the physical challenges, dealing with illnesses, the elements, the lack of modern amenities and comforts. Then you have to take into account the psychological challenges: isolation, homesickness, living in a post-Soviet country with people who still have a Communist mentality, gender issues, loneliness, differences in work ethics, etc.  

But despite all of the hardships and challenges, there's an equal amount of brilliant moments, when you can't imagine being anywhere else: When your host grandmother has tears in her eyes after you give her a small birthday present. When your neighbor truly doesn't believe you don't know Penelope Cruz. When a 4-year-old tells you she knows English better than you do. When a baby reaches out for you to hold her and cries when you leave. When you walk into a store and the owner says, "What do you want?" and then smiles and adds, "I learn English, for you!" When everyone goes around the table, toasting you and the work you're doing for their country. When you read grant proposals written by Volunteers and you understand exactly why Peace Corps is here. 

As a Volunteer, I have definitely had my fair share of hard days (and will have many more in the future), but thankfully, I have had some incredible days as well. Peace Corps' tagline clearly states, it is the toughest job you'll ever love, and I can certainly vouch for that. But at the end of the day, I'm proud to call myself a Volunteer (even if I am counting down the days until I return home!).

Friday, November 4, 2011

6-month update

Wow, almost two months have passed since my last post. I guess it's safe to say I suck at blogging. I'd like to blame it on the fact that I'm just so busy I don't have time. Or maybe that I'm not really doing anything interesting enough to write about. Or maybe that I'm addicted to Gossip Girl and since my bedroom is a cool 45 degrees, I prefer to snuggle up under my Peace Corps sleeping bag and catch the latest Blair and Chuck drama. To be honest, I think it's a combination of all three: I'm busy, I'm not doing anything that interesting (yet), and I definitely have an addiction. Come on... have you seen Nate Archibald lately?!

Work has drastically picked up over the last 5-6 weeks. I have been conducting three-hour trainings (which we simply refer to as seminars in the States) every Tuesday morning. The trainings are fairly easy, but they take about a week to prepare. After I pick a topic (resume writing, interview skills, how to write a business plan, social media, etc.), then I have to research it, write about it and turn it into a 3-hour session with activities and breaks. If I need any handouts, I have to write those (in Georgian), have them edited by someone who actually knows this crazy language and get them printed. It's very time-consuming to say the least. But my group seems to enjoy it (this particular group is comprised of 15 adults, both men and women). They take a ton of notes, ask a million questions and always play my ridiculous games. 

I also have a youth group that I'm meeting with weekly—or, at least I'm supposed to be meeting with weekly. I will be doing similar trainings with them, but these will be focused more on life skills rather than business/career skills. As someone who has never been a huge fan of kids (sorry, but it's true) I'm interested to see how this turns out, when and if we ever get started. Assuming it goes well, I'd like to eventually turn it into a girls' only group where they can have a safe environment to talk about whatever they want. But for now, we'll let the boys join us.

I'm also working on developing websites for a new winery and a local gunmaker, and I'm consulting with local guesthouses (making recommendations and creating brochures, web listings, etc.). I've assisted the winery on a few lengthy applications for the U.S. government and have started researching and writing grant proposals for my organization. We're also hoping to exhibit at a trade show in the U.S. sometime in the near future, so I've been developing a budget and plan for that. 

Like I said, I'm busy. Like I said, it's not that interesting (yet). And Nate… I don't think I need to explain that one. He's just so pretty!! But I think those are all pretty good reasons to suck at blog-writing...?

Work aside, life in Georgia has been good, albeit a little on the chilly side. Winter is definitely approaching... We had our first snowfall in the mountains 2 weeks ago, Grams has busted out the wood-burning stove, and the flies have all but disappeared (thank god). The leaves have already changed colors and are now falling off the trees. The grapes have all been picked and the winter fruit is starting to appear. All I need now is for the dogs and roosters to shut up... surely that happens in the winter?!

I've been traveling a lot the past few weeks as well. I spent several days at the end of September in Sighnaghi, Georgia's "City of Love," for a Peace Corps business conference. It was so great seeing everyone from my training group again, and we even enjoyed a night out at a… get this… Mexican restaurant! It wasn't the best I've ever had, but there was some spice and it wasn't Georgian food, so I was happy.

Early in October, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a wine tasting competition at the U.S. Embassy, which was awesome! The Embassy itself was impressive, but the wine tasting was even better. Ten wineries from around the country conducted tastings for Embassy staff and military personnel. It was a great turnout and everyone seemed to really love our wines. Unfortunately, due to Embassy security, I don't have any photos of the event, but I had a great time, met a ton of people and got to speak English for 3 solid hours! I even got a quick peek in the Embassy store: Bisquick, Aunt Jemima, Nature Valley granola bars, Gatorade. It was like a mini-Target… a closed mini-Target. Imagine my disappointment. :-( After the wine tasting, I spent the weekend in Tbilisi where the awesomeness continued: I saw, for the first time in Georgia, real American college football! Live on ESPN, no less. Sadly, Texas was being destroyed by Oklahoma, but hey, it was football. I'll take what I can get.

A few weeks later, my boyfriend Gus joined me in Kvareli for a few days. We spent the weekend making churchkhela with my host family (a traditional Georgian candy made with walnuts and a thickened grape juice) and hiking to Nekresi, a 4th century monastery near Kvareli. We ended the day with a small, American-like picnic, complete with granola bars, peanut butter and Chips Ahoy sent from the States (thanks, Mom!). Here are some photos from the weekend if you want to check out the action!


Most recently, Gus and I traveled to Turkey for five glorious days (more on that later). We had an unbelievable time and absolutely fell in love with Istanbul. If you haven't been to Turkey – or haven't had a desire to visit – I highly suggest you add this ancient and breathtaking country to the top of your travel list. Besides being an amazing vacation, it was also nice to get out of Georgia for a few days and pretend like we weren't Volunteers. I almost felt like a normal, self-sufficient adult again!

So now it's November. I've been in Georgia for a little more than six months (how is that even possible?!) and have survived a muddy, cold, rainy spring… a hot, humid, sweltering summer… and a beautifully perfect fall. Fingers crossed I'll survive the upcoming winter too. But, in case you don't hear from me again for awhile, just assume I'm in bed, under my blankets and sleeping bag, hiding from the cold. And hoping, most of all, that Chuck and Blair can finally work out their issues.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The boss

Everyone knows it can be intimidating meeting your boss for the first time. You have a million questions running through your mind… wondering if you'll get along, if your work styles will be similar, if he'll like you, etc. You want him to get a sense of who you are, and at the same time get a sense of who he is. You want to impress him. And you want to make a connection. The pressure is on. We've all been there. Except now imagine you don't speak each other's languages. Talk about nerve-wracking!

The first time I met Alex was during PST at the Supervisors' Conference, where we were paired up with our future counterparts. We were all standing in the lobby of our hotel… 42 Volunteers on one side, 42 Georgian counterparts on the other. One by one, they would call our names, and then that person would walk to the center of the lobby and meet the person they were going to work with for the next 2 years. It was exciting and terrifying, all at the same time. When I heard my name called, I started walking to the center and then I saw Alex walking towards me. This was him... my counterpart! I immediately noticed his kind smile and a little twinkle in his eye – but most importantly, I noticed he was rockin' a denim jacket. I, too, was wearing a denim jacket that day. That's the first time I thought maybe, just maybe, this was going to be a perfect match!

Over the next several weeks, I was able to see Alex interact with his family and his two little girls. He clearly loves his girls and is so playful with them – always kissing them, tickling them, playing with their toys. I was at his house one evening for a supra (a big Georgian dinner), enjoying the company of his family and several of their neighbors, when I first saw the affectionate side of Alex. His oldest daughter Nata is four (going on 14) and loves, loves, loves to entertain. She struts down the catwalk and poses with her hand on her hip (with no less than 5 outfit changes); she proudly recites Georgian songs; she performs Georgian dances; and she loves to tell me the words she knows in English. She also refuses to wear pants (and I quote: "Mom, don't you know princesses don't wear pants?!”). She is, in every sense of the word, a girly girl. That evening, she decided to perform a few of her songs at the supra. Next thing I know, she hands her daddy a pink, plastic Barbie microphone and asks him to please introduce her next song. He smiles, takes the microphone, holds it up to his mouth and says loudly, "Performing for us next is… Nata!" She beamed. He beamed. Yep… I definitely like this man.

I've been here almost nine weeks now and I grow more and more fond of Alex every day. He's been nothing but kind to me since the day I met him, and he always has a smile on his face, even when I know he's exhausted and overworked. He always asks how I'm doing, how my family is doing and what my plans are for the weekend. He's eager to meet my friends and wants to know when they are coming to visit. Last week, he told me to let him know when my mom is coming to visit so he can take a few days off to show her around. He's given me more bottles of wine and other thoughtful gifts than I know what to do with. He's taken me to several places around Kakheti and has introduced me to everyone in town. Basically, he’s one of the warmest, kindhearted, genuine, hardworking people I've met in a really long time. And he's my boss! I'm definitely one of the luckiest Volunteers in Georgia, that's for sure.

And then last week happened. We had spent the day in Telavi – a city not too far from here – and we were in the car, driving back to Kvareli with his family. The car was packed, it was hot and everyone was tired. But that didn't stop him. He pulled the car over, turned off the engine and got out. He started walking around this tree, in the middle of nowhere, looking at the ground. I had no idea what was going on, and chalked it up to another random Georgian moment. Then his wife, who speaks fluent English, explained… he loves rocks and stops to pick them up all the time. He's collecting white ones right now because he wants to use them in a cellar he's building. So there we were, on the side of the road, watching my boss search for the perfect rock. And that's when I knew for sure… this was definitely a perfect match.

My counterpart, Alex

P.S. For those who don't know me well, I have been known to collect a *few* rocks in my time. I may have even moved a box of rocks from Colorado to South Carolina, may have snuck an entire bag through customs in Costa Rica, and may have a special rock that I rub when I'm stressed. So I have a special place in my heart for my fellow collectors; those of us who understand there are times when you just can't control the need to find that perfect rock. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Kwa

The letter 'ყ' in Georgian is the hardest letter for me pronounce. It sounds a little like the letter 'k' yet you have to say it from the deepest part of your throat. No matter how hard I try, nobody ever understands what I'm trying to say. So you can only imagine my excitement when I moved from Kvibisi (which always sounded like Tbilisi to Georgians when I tried to say it) to Kvareli – both of which begin with my beloved letter ყ. So to make it easier for all involved, we're just going to call it the Kwa from here on out. 

I've been at my permanent site for 7 weeks now (without a single blog post… sorry) and I have to say, life is finally starting to feel somewhat normal. I no longer feel like a guest in my house, and I'm learning my way around town; I've even learned how to do my own laundry, which is a big deal considering everything is in Russian. The days are going by quickly, which is a good thing since this summer has been unbearably hot (that is, until my family installed a rockin' AC unit right outside my bedroom), and I feel like I'm adjusting and integrating fairly well.

My house

My days in the Kwa are pretty routine. I wake up between 7-8am, go for a run (and get stared at like I'm a lunatic who's running through town naked and screaming), shower, eat breakfast and then walk to work around 10am (and get stared at again). I'm there until 5-6pm, and then I walk home (with the whole town watching to see what the crazy American might do or say), eat dinner and either read a book, watch a movie or catch up with other Volunteers. Like I said, it's a fairly normal (albeit Georgian) life.

I'm not doing very much at work right now. The entire country takes the month of August off (figuratively speaking), so most projects are put on hold until September. However, I'm in a very different situation from the rest of the business Volunteers; they all work for NGOs that support at-risk youth, internally displaced people, minorities, abused women, etc.… I promote wineries and tourism. And August is a prime month for tourism, so while I didn't have many actual projects going on, we did have countless tourists coming through Kvareli that kept us busy. I conducted a wine tour for a group of Israeli tourists, which was a little nerve-wracking but also pretty fun, and I've been able to join my counterpart on a several tours and meetings around the region. I'm also editing wine labels, brochures and websites, and have started working on plans to exhibit at a trade show in DC next spring. Over the next few months, I'll be helping my organization create a one-year plan, design and launch three separate websites, and write a few grant proposals. I'm also going to start teaching English in a few weeks and will be conducting a few marketing-related trainings in October. Photos of Kvareli...

My office

Everyone has been asking what my biggest challenge has been so far. It is, without a doubt, the language. There is so much I want to say (especially to my wonderful host grandmother!), but I simply don’t have the vocabulary yet. At work we rely a lot on the website and my counterpart's wife who speaks English fluently, but I still feel completely lost most days. I'm hoping it comes in time, but right now I'm wondering if I'll ever really be able to communicate.

I have ventured out of my community a few times to visit other Volunteers and see new parts of the country. I've been to Tbilisi twice now; once when it was so hot I thought I might die so the sight-seeing was extremely limited, and another time to "support" the Peace Corps basketball team, which for me meant relishing a quiet day alone in the city, visiting museums and enjoying a latte at an adorable little bookstore. We're only allowed to spend two nights in Tbilisi each month, but I'm looking forward to taking advantage of those nights and exploring what I think is a pretty cool city. Here are a few photos from my first weekend in Tbilisi...

Tbilisi at dusk

I also traveled 9 hours across the country to visit my PST roommate, Rachael, who lives about 30 minutes from the Black Sea. We spent one day in Batumi, which is an interesting resort town, and two days in Kobuleti, where we did nothing but relax on the beach and enjoy a few ice cream cones. While it certainly wasn't Hilton Head, it was still really nice to enjoy a few days at the beach with an amazing friend. 

This is one of my favorite photos from the weekend… it's our lifeguard, hard at work. Good thing the waves weren't big that day!

Batumi lifeguard

So now it's September and fall is approaching. I'm looking forward to cooler weather, camping trips in the mountains, the leaves changing and the annual grape harvest, which is a huge event in Kakheti with a lot of celebrations and big dinners. But until then I'm going to retreat to the comfort of my air-conditioned room…

Sunday, July 17, 2011

It's official!

I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer. I don't think it's hit me yet that this dream I've had for 10+ years has finally come true… that after 2 years of applying, waiting, accepting, packing and going through training… I am finally a Volunteer! In the Peace Corps!  It's surreal, exciting and unbelievably satisfying, to say the least.  

This past Friday, July 15, 42 Trainees took the oath (the same oath that the President takes!) and became official Peace Corps Volunteers! I thought I would be so excited when that day came, but it was actually a little bittersweet. I adored my host family and wasn't ready to say goodbye to them, and I certainly wasn't ready to say goodbye to my roommate, who has become my closest friend here. To go from being with someone 24/7 (literally) to not seeing her at all, and not knowing the next time I will get to see her, is really hard. I think this is why the Peace Corps doesn't let Trainees live together… you form this instant, abnormal, possibly unhealthy attachment to someone – and then they rip you apart! I already miss her. So much. 

Tears aside, the swearing-in ceremony went well. We all said our farewells and then our new directors and/or host families drove everyone to their permanent sites. Luckily my director was able to drive his car there, otherwise I wasn't sure how I was going to get all NINE bags across the country (not all of it was mine, and most of it I have acquired since I got here… sleeping bags, water filters, mosquito nets, don't judge!). 

I have just finished unpacking in my new home, and am feeling pretty good about everything. For the most part though, I'm just happy PST (pre-service training) is over. That was the most intense, stressful, exhausting 11 weeks of my life and I'm not sure I could have done it much longer. Every day was spent learning the language, preparing for and conducting community projects and trainings, working on reports, studying for tests, finishing homework, and trying to spend time with our host families. There was never a dull moment, that's for sure, and a few times I wasn't even sure how we would get it all done. But, we did get it done, I passed my language requirement – and now the fun starts!

For those who don't know… I got the job and site that I wanted! I now live in Kvareli in the Kakheti region (Eastern Georgia), which is a small town in a quaint little valley, tucked into the Caucasus Mountains. The mountains are so beautiful, the lakes are amazing (and the President likes to vacation at one of the lakes all the time; in fact, his helicopter just flew over my house an hour ago), the vineyards are endless, and we have the best weather… it snows in the winter (but not too much), it's hot and dry in the summer, and the fall is incredible. We also have the best fruits and veggies, and it's only 2 hours from Tbilisi, which is where all the fun happens on the weekends!

So the reason I came here… to work… I will be working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on tourism, specifically wine tourism. I'll mostly be working in a winery, helping them with marketing, exporting, and grant writing (and, you know, conducting a few wine tours and tastings). I'm really excited about my job, and can't wait to become a Georgian sommelier!

For the next two years, I'll be living in this fabulous house with my host grandmother who is 64. She's so wonderful and also happens to be a fabulous cook. It's just the two of us in this big house, so I'm enjoying some much-needed peace and quiet (never mind the roosters in the front yard who seem to be in competition with each other 24 hours a day). I have a great view of the mountains, and several apple and plum trees in my yard. And yes, I have a shower with hot water, and a flushable toilet! It's a really good situation and I'm excited to see where the next two years takes me!

As for what's next… well, your guess is as good as mine. I think I start work tomorrow. I think I have to conduct a few trainings next month. I think I have a Georgian tutor lined up. I think I’m going to Batumi on the Black Sea in August for a few days. I think I’m going to Turkey in November. Truth is, I really have no idea what's going on or what's being said 95% of the time. I just smile, nod my head and hope for the best. That's life in the Peace Corps and I couldn't be happier!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A quick glimpse

For those who want a glimpse into my awesome new life, you can check out a few photos that I just posted. I included some photos in my village and Lagodekhi, which is where I job shadowed a few weeks ago. Me mikvars sakartvelo (I love Georgia)!! :-)

Friday, June 10, 2011

6 weeks down, 5 to go!

It's hard to believe I've reached the halfway mark of pre-service training (PST). On one hand, I feel like I've already been here a year – but on the other hand, I feel like I just got here a week ago. It's been an interesting and humorous 6 weeks, that's for sure! I can say with 100% certainty, though, that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I love this crazy country in a way I can't really explain but I will certainly try…

Georgia is amazingly beautiful, fascinating and bizarre – all at the same time. The people are so incredibly warm and friendly; they're more than happy to invite you into their homes and serve you more food than you could eat in a week (literally). We even had complete strangers offer to drive us to another village, wait for us while we finished our errands, and then treat us to lunch. That's just the way they are here! 

As for the country itself, it's absolutely breathtaking. As one of my fellow trainees put it (while looking out of the window on our bus), "it's like we live in a postcard." And it's true… everywhere you look is beautiful – and I've only seen two towns! I can't even imagine how the rest of the country looks, especially during fall. I promise to post some photos soon so you can see what I mean. 

And my life… well, there really is no way to describe what my life has been like for the past 6 weeks, or how amazing the Peace Corps' training program is, but I think 'surreal' sums it up. I'm incredibly happy and I laugh to the point of having tears in my eyes pretty much every day. I've made some great friends already, and my host family is quite possibly the best family in all of Georgia. I have a host mother and father, and three host sisters (20, 18 and 14) who are awesome. I really couldn't imagine a better family than mine! I still wake up most mornings and think, "I can't believe I live here!"

It hasn't all been sunshine and happiness though. I actually started out in another village, living with another family, and unfortunately had to move out due to an incident with my host father. My host mother was away for the evening and he had been drinking… you do the math. But the Peace Corps responded immediately and removed me from the situation before it escalated. I was devastated at first because I had to move out of my village, away from my friends, and basically start over. 

But it all worked out in the end! Not only did I end up with an amazing family, I'm also living with another trainee who has become a wonderful friend. It's very rare for two trainees to live together (the PC wants you to integrate with your family, not hang out with your American friends) but there were no other options. So now I live in Kvibisi, which is about 5 minutes outside of Borjomi, with my friend Rachael. It's a picturesque little village, complete with meandering cows, roosters and pigs. I've only lived here for 4 weeks but I know I'm going to be sad when I have to leave (which is in 5 weeks…yikes!).


As for pre-service training (PST), well, it can easily be described in one word: intense. We have Georgian language class 6 days a week, from 9am-1pm, and by the end of the morning, your brain literally can't absorb any new information. But it really is a huge testament to the PC's program when you consider how much Georgian we have learned in just 6 weeks. We know about 40 verbs and are now working on past tense, a million or so nouns, adjectives and adverbs, and can create fairly complex sentences. For example, we can describe our daily activities (in complete sentences, mind you) and talk about our favorite fruit/vegetable/season/sport/color/etc. We can tell you about our families, our homes, our jobs and how we prefer our coffee. Or if you want to know what we did last week, we can tell you that too! It really is crazy how much we know already. After language (and lunch), we have business training from 2pm-5pm. Then we have homework, practicums and projects we have to work on – plus spend a few hours hanging out with the family – so it's usually 11pm by the time we crawl into bed. 

Georgian language class!

I did have the opportunity to take a short break from all of the training recently and job shadow a current Volunteer. I ended up traveling about 5 hours east to a town called Lagodekhi, which is really close to the Azerbaijan and Russian borders. It was nice to see how Volunteers live after PST, what "real" Georgia is like, and what kind of jobs they have. It sounds like I'll definitely be doing a lot of grant writing, conducting trainings and possibly teaching English. Or, if there's something else I want to do in my village, I have the option of taking on secondary projects. I'm excited to find out where exactly I'm going to be living for the next 2 years and what I'll be doing. The anticipation is killing me! We find out this Monday (June 13) so fingers crossed that I end up somewhere good!!

Living in Georgia is certainly going to be interesting and challenging at times, but so far I'm enjoying every minute of it. I've honestly laughed more in this past month than I have in the past few years – it's the best feeling. Plus I LOVE my fellow trainees, our country director and the PC staff. I feel like I really hit the jackpot. Awesome friends, awesome staff and a gorgeous country filled with warm, welcoming people. What more could I ask for?!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Life in Georgia

I don't have a lot of time, but I wanted to let everyone know I'm alive and happy here in Sakartvelo! Life in Georgia is interesting, to say the least, but I'm enjoying every minute of it and couldn't be happier with my decision to join the Peace Corps. 

I'm currently living in a small village about two hours from Tbilisi. I spend most of my time (6 days a week) studying the language and the ins and outs of NGOs in Georgia, as well as learning about the culture and how to integrate into our communities. It's truly amazing how much we have all learned in such a short amount of time; the Peace Corps staff certainly knows what they're doing here! 

I should have fairly regular access to the Internet within the next few weeks, so I'll be sure to update my blog with more details and pictures. But for the time being, please know I'm safe and happy!

Walking to school in the morning

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Off I go!

It's hard to believe that I'm leaving to start my Peace Corps journey in 4 days! I thought for sure when this time came that I would be a big ball of emotions, but I'm actually not feeling much of anything. I'm not excited. I'm not freaking out. I'm not nervous. I'm not anxious. I'm just kind of… blah. 

I was explaining my total lack of emotions to one of my friends earlier this week and I think he hit the nail on the head. He said this journey is probably so huge and unlike anything I've ever experienced that it's impossible to tie any kind of emotion to it. His prediction: Once I've moved in with my new host family (alone) and I'm sitting in my bedroom after unpacking (alone) and I'm realizing I've actually moved to a foreign country (alone)… then the emotions will appear. I don't say this often, but I think he's right. So I've accepted my lack of emotions, knowing they will show up at some point, and am focusing instead on getting all those last minute tasks completed. 

(Thank you, MCJ, for your insight, support and encouragement. You're awesome.)

Since I can't give everyone a weepy or excited farewell, I'm going to share my list of "what I'll miss most."  I'm not going to include family members, friends or my sweet fluffy babies – that goes without saying. I'm also not going to include modern conveniences like a washer/dryer, hot showers or indoor plumbing – that's just too easy. So as I get ready to say goodbye to the United States and the people I love, I also want to say goodbye to the things I love:
  1. Gamecock football
  2. Hilton Head, SC (including the beach, the smell of ocean air, the sound of waves crashing, long walks on the beach and choosing which million dollar home I want, shrimp boats coming in at the end of the day, my favorite restaurants, early morning kayaking, and the view from the bridge)
  3. Coffee brewed just the way I like it
  4. South Carolina peaches
  5. The Daily Show
  6. The 4th of July
  7. High heels
  8. English
  9. Books and bookstores
  10. Condiments
Goodbye, things I love. And goodbye to each of you… my amazingly wonderful friends and loved ones. Don't forget to write! And maybe cheer for the Gamecocks in my absence! 

P.S. All postcards, packages and love letters will be accepted here:

Susan Burkhart, PCT
29a Vazha Pshavela Avenue
0160, Tbilisi Georgia

Do NOT put Peace Corps Georgia in the address, as this may result in delayed delivery or require customs clearance fees. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

6 airports. 3 days.

While I was in Indianapolis last week, I received an email from the Peace Corps letting me know we would be meeting in Philadelphia for staging, and asking us to make our travel arrangements as soon as possible. The Peace Corps pays for all of our flights, and books the international leg for us, so I all I had to do was book my U.S. flight through their travel agency. 

I decided to call right away, assuming it would only take a few minutes to book my flight. I had already looked at flights online and had spotted a lovely U.S. Airways flight departing from Savannah at 8:30 a.m., connecting in Charlotte, and landing in Philly an hour before I needed to be there. Perfect! 

Or not. Apparently flying out of a tiny airport, during spring break, on Easter Monday, after a PGA tournament in Hilton Head ends, does not equal perfect. Every flight was sold out. You can only guess what this means… I'm on the worst possible flight out of Savannah. I'll depart at 6:30 a.m. (which means getting up at 4:00 a.m.), fly to Miami, and then on to Philly. Now, I realize that most U.S. Americans don't, like, have maps* – but I do think most people know Miami is not really on the way to Philly. Oh well.

After 6 hours of flying and layovers, I'll arrive in Philly at 12:15 p.m.; registration starts at 12:30 p.m. Awesome… 15 minutes to gather up my 100 lbs. of luggage, catch a cab and get downtown. Oh, and I'm supposed to eat lunch before registration otherwise it will be 7:00 p.m. before we have dinner. This day is going to be so much fun, I can already tell!

After everyone arrives and fills out the necessary paperwork, we'll have a 5-hour-long meeting (called staging) to go over expectations and what's next in the process. Our group will go to dinner that night and then we'll finally get some rest. But then we're up early again the next morning to catch our flight out of Philly. Oh wait, no, that's not right… I meant to say… to catch our bus to JFK. Yes, a bus. From one international airport to another. Don't ask.

We'll arrive at JFK around 11:00 a.m., and our flight will depart at 5:00 p.m. It's funny… I've always wondered what one could do at JFK for 6 leisurely hours and now I'll get to find out!

We'll finally board our 10-hour flight from JFK to Istanbul, Turkey, and will arrive at the respectable hour of 1:00 p.m., just in time for lunch! Oh, except it will be 3:00 a.m. East Coast time. We'll have a 3-hour layover in Turkey and then we'll finally board our flight to T'bilisi. Thankfully this last leg is only 2 hours and then we'll actually be in Georgia!

This is going to be the longest 3 days of my life – and I'm already looking forward to it being over. But at least I'm finally getting excited! Having actual flights and agendas makes it all so real and exciting! So the flights are a little torturous… nothing that is worthwhile is ever easy, right? 

So here's to the G11s and our 3 long but worthwhile days of traveling!

* Thank you, Miss South Carolina, for providing endless hours of entertainment that never, ever gets old. For those who missed it, enjoy...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Parting is such sweet sorrow...

Less than 3 weeks in our great country and I'm still feeling completely overwhelmed! Luckily I've been able to cross a few items off my to-do list, but there are still a lot of things left to do and a lot of people left to see. 

I just got back from a wonderful yet bittersweet trip to Indiana where I got to say goodbye to a lot of my family members. The trip started with a quick stop in Columbia, SC where I got to drive around my college campus and enjoy a nice dinner at one of our favorite hot spots, Harper's! Although I felt really old around those young college kids (I never thought I would say that!!), it was fun to be on campus and remember all the good times I had at USC. 

Then it was on to Greenville, SC for a quick overnight stay at my Aunt Peg's house, and the next morning we (my mom and I) left for Mount Vernon, IN where I got to enjoy a lovely lunch and visit with my 95-year-old grandmother (my dad's mother). She played the piano for me – without missing a beat, of course – and told stories about my grandfather whom we all miss dearly. She is an amazing woman and it was a visit I will never forget. I also got to see my Aunt Sharon and Uncle Larry, as well as my gorgeous cousin Anna and her two kids, Rachel and Luke. It was a short visit, but I was so glad I got to see everyone.


As much as I wanted to stay in Mount Vernon for a little while longer, we had to get to Indianapolis so I could see my mom's side of the family… all 67 of them! (Okay, I didn’t get to see all 67, but my grandma recently counted how many immediate, living, blood relatives we have and that was the number she came up with – my big fat Irish Catholic family!)

My visit to Indy was perfect. I got to see four of my aunts and uncles – Carolyn, John, Joe and Joanne – my cousins Chris and Mike (and his adorable family), and my one-of-a-kind grandma who makes me laugh like no other. I love her sense of humor, her loving nature and her spirit. She's my Kindle-owning, cell phone-carrying, kayak-paddling, hip 91-year-old Gram! And she's not afraid to order a margarita at dinner either. :-) Like I said, my visit was perfect. We had some great meals, great conversations, great laughs, and I finally found some winter clothes to buy!


Unfortunately all great things must come to an end, which meant it was time to return to SC and my to-do list. On the way back home, we stopped again at my aunt's house and randomly enough, my Aunt Marnie and Uncle Eddie were passing through town so we got to visit with them too! 

So now I'm back in Hilton Head, working on my taxes and language lessons, and wondering if I'm ever going to be ready to leave. I'm still ridden with anxiety and stress, and wondering when, exactly, the excitement will start to kick in. I mean... I'm joining the Peace Corps! On one hand, I know it's my dream come true, but on the other hand... parting is such sweet sorrow. Especially when you have a family like mine.