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