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…