Thursday, May 23, 2013

What I learned

I have 25 days left in Georgia. I've written my description of service, updated my resume, finalized my projects, completed my medical exams (I'm happy to report I have a clean bill of health… no parasites, no worms, no TB!), and started packing. It's really coming to an end. I'm excited to go home, but I'm also very sad to be leaving. So I've decided to put off my goodbyes until June and simply enjoy the time I have left. The weather has been amazing, I've started running again, and I'm very much enjoying the fruit that has started to appear in the bazaar… strawberries, cherries, and these little mysterious black berries that are so sweet and delicious. Life is good in Georgia. 

Sadly though, this part of my life must end. It's been an incredible journey full of surprises. I've had some of the best days of my life here. I've worked on exciting projects, and have seen a million new places. I've made new friends and new memories. And I've learned a lot. Not only about myself, but also about my friends and family members, Georgians and Americans, and life in general. 

Over the past two years, I learned that… 

… I actually can learn a foreign language! After 4 long and discouraging years of French, I was pretty sure English was going to be it for me. But alas, I have successfully learned a language that is rumored to be more difficult than Mandarin, and I'm fully capable of carrying on decent conversations every day! Who would have ever guessed?! Not Mrs. Allen, that's for sure.

Georgian language class

… It really doesn't matter that I think pedestrians should have the right of way. Georgians don't. And if I don't get out the way, they will (and have) run me over.

… Americans truly are germaphobes. We wash our hands multiple times a day, shower at least once a day, only wear our clothes one time before washing, obsessively use hand sanitizers and wipes, sterilize anything that has fallen on the ground, and wash everything before we eat it. Not me. I've spread honey on my bread that was full of caramelized ants (and ate it). I've had countless drinks with dead fruit flies floating on top. I rarely use hand sanitizer except after riding public transportation. I shower 2-3 times a week. I wear my clothes until they are visibly dirty. I eat fruit that hasn't been washed. I fully believe in the 5-second rule (except it's kind of turned into a 5-minute rule). And I'm fine. 

… The Soviet Union wasn't the horrible, scary place we learned about in school. I'm not condoning communism, but, turns out people in the Soviet Union were happy. They had jobs, homes, money and a good quality of life. Some people actually yearn for those days.

… I love being an American. Before I left the U.S., I wasn't completely sold on America's greatness. Oh, was I wrong! I'm fairly certain now that it's the greatest country in the world. Yes, we have our problems and we seem to have a lot of them lately – but still, I love that we show up on time, form lines, give people their privacy at the ATM, and plan ahead. I love how we treat each other (mostly)… "thank you," "you're welcome," and "please" really do go a long way. Not to mention we open doors for each other, let others go in front of us when we're not in a hurry, and smile at strangers. I love that we have options. I love our freedoms. 

... I actually like being called a "good girl" by Georgians. It was a little irritating at first, but now I find it endearing.

… Less really is more. I don't have a closet full of clothes, the latest iPhone, or a fancy car – and I'm quite content. Living a simple life is easier in a lot of regards: there's no "keeping up with the Joneses," no rat race, no living outside your means.  

… Fitted sheets are ridiculously important to a good night's sleep.

No fitted sheets here!

… Americans complain. A LOT. Some of my favorite complaints on Facebook have been about traffic jams, lines at Starbucks, spin classes that were full, delayed flights, dropped calls, snowplows blocking the roads, hour-long power outages, and of course, your basic road rage. Those are what people call "first world problems." You should consider yourself lucky; not cursed. (And maybe curtail the "FML" statements, too. I'm pretty sure your life doesn't suck that bad.)

… It's really hard being the odd man out. I now have so much respect and empathy for immigrants trying to set up a new life in the U.S. It's not easy living and working in another country with a different culture and language. Maybe we could all cut them a little slack, just as Georgians did for me?

… I am resilient, flexible, unassuming and grateful for the days when most things work in my favor. 

… Most Americans think of luxuries as Bentleys, Pradas, and vacations in Tahiti. In every other country around the world, these things are true luxuries: air conditioning, central heating, insulation, indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, microwaves, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, cars, options and variety, school buses, the Internet.

My basic, but functional, kitchen

… Our public schools are pretty nice. Don't get me wrong, I think the educational system is extremely flawed, and don't even get me started on pay for performance, but overall, we have clean schools with trained teachers and specialists, countless resources (meaning chalk, markers, paper, glue), functional gymnasiums and playgrounds with equipment, libraries, indoor bathrooms, and running water. That's more than most countries can say.

Typical Georgian school

… Our government – while also flawed – provides a lot of great services for its citizens: public libraries, parks, paved roads, snow plows and salt trucks (and employees to do the work), garbage collection, street lights, and utilities. Yes, I know we pay for these services, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful.

… My mom is the strongest, most loving, thoughtful, funny and amazing person I know. I'm so grateful that she was able to visit me in Georgia and experience a little of my life here. And I'm grateful that she has taken care of my cats for 2+ years. Thank you, Mom!


… The mysterious black berries that I mentioned before are mulberries! I don't think I've ever had a mulberry before. I highly recommend them. 

… I'm proud to be part Georgian. Despite my struggles here, it has truly been an honor to immerse myself in their culture, to live among them and to be accepted by them.

My beloved Georgian family

But most of all, I've learned that I'm lucky. I live in the United States of America. I speak the world's preferred language. I received a free quality education (save your SC jokes, please). I have amazing friends and a supportive family. I've always had a warm (or cold, depending on the season) house to go home to and food on the table. I'm healthy. And I've had incredible opportunities in my life that most people only dream about. Thanks to this experience, I now know just how lucky I really am. 

The start of it all... orientation in Tbilisi, April 2011

P.S. No part of this blog was intended to offend my fellow Americans. As I stated above, I am very proud to be an American. I've just learned to laugh at all of our ridiculousness. :-)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Georgia spells opportunity

So much of my blog (if not all of it) has focused on my experiences here… the people I've met, the places I've visited, the challenges I've faced, and the life I've built. While all of that has been important and fun, I wish now that I had taken the time to write more about my projects and work. That is why I joined the Peace Corps, after all. So now I'm going to brag about one project in particular that I've been working on for the past year: The National English Spelling Competition.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia more than two years ago, one of my friends and fellow Volunteers, Adam, came up with the idea for a country-wide English spelling competition — one that would reward students and teachers for their hard work and celebrate their achievements in a public forum. He started working on the event in the fall of 2011, along with four other PCVs. For several months, they met with Georgia's Ministry of Education, the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps Georgia, and several other organizations whose support was needed to make the project feasible. I joined the project the following summer, when they realized they were going to need help with the marketing. 

This project turned out to be bigger than anyone expected and required a lot of work. Everyone had their roles to play: we needed a database, website, registration forms, rules, word lists, volunteers, venues, dates, funding, etc. I served as the marketing & PR specialist. I created promotional and sponsorship flyers, designed certificates for the participants, wrote website copy and press releases, managed the production of the program guide, and provided sponsorship support... you know, exactly what I was doing before I joined the Peace Corps. And no, I didn't miss the irony there.

Gus was able to secure sponsorships from the top university in Georgia, a credit union, and World Vision, along with support from countless organizations and businesses. Our Georgian friend and counterpart, Ilia, was able to secure a venue, transportation, food & lodging, entertainment, and design & printing services for the national event. Even my dear friends at Fixation Marketing chipped in to help by generously donating their time to create the event's logo.

Finally, after a year of planning, the competition was announced in September 2012. Within a few days, more than 50 schools had registered! By the end of the local level competitions that took place in late October, more than 170 schools and 2,460 students had participated, which far exceeded our expectations. Several weeks later, more than 1,000 students from nine regions across Georgia participated in the regional level competitions. It was obvious how excited the students were at these events. There were shouts of excitement and tears of disappointment as they were tested on their knowledge of the English language. At the end of the regional competitions, 34 students had fought hard and earned the right to compete at the National Competition. 

On March 30, the finalists gathered in Tbilisi to compete for the title of National English Spelling Competition Champion. They competed in two groups: 8th & 9th grade, and 10th, 11th & 12th grade. I really wasn't sure what to expect since this was the first year of the competition, and the first time these students have ever participated in an event like this, but they absolutely blew me away! I have to admit… they were spelling words a lot of us — native English speakers and college graduates — didn't know how to spell. Words like verisimilitude, asphyxiate, kaleidoscope, and xenophobia were not challenging to them whatsoever. It was truly impressive to watch and several times, I was literally on the edge of my seat! Following the competition, the U.S. Ambassador hosted a special reception at his residence to recognize and celebrate everyone's accomplishments. It was a memorable evening and the perfect ending to an incredible day!

This project required a commitment from thousands of students, teachers, volunteers and organizations and I'm proud to say, it was a huge success. That's not to say we didn't hit a few speed bumps here and there, but in the end, it was a great event. The students had an amazing time hanging out in Tbilisi; the teachers were beaming with pride; the judges were honored to be a part of it; and the sponsors were thrilled. A new group of volunteers has already started working on next year's competition with the goal of making this an annual, sustainable, Georgian-led event. 

As for me, I'm very proud of what we accomplished. I was able to use my marketing skills and even managed to get published in the Peace Corps' magazine World View! I had a lot of fun working on this project and watching the kids celebrate their successes at the final competition. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the organizations I've worked with over the past two years, I have not been able to see very many of my projects come to fruition. I'm happy to say though, the NESC changed that and now, with less than 6 weeks left in Georgia, I know I can leave with a smile on my face knowing I did make a difference.

Studying at regionals
Regional competition, Imereti

Regional winners, heading to Tbilisi!
Shannon, Gus, Ilia and Adam

Finalists at McDonald's

U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Officer
PC Country Director, Rick Record

The judges
8th-9th grade competition

Top three 8th-9th graders 
10th-12th grade competition

First prize: iPads, courtesy of the U.S. Embassy!
Finalists and Volunteers!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It's just one of those days...

That's how my morning started the other day. I woke up to find another typical April day – cloudy, chilly, and rainy. I hadn't seen the sun in almost 10 days – it was depressing. Plus, the power, gas and water at my house were all out, which meant no shower, no coffee, no cooking, no computer. I didn't feel like getting out of bed or going for a run. I didn't feel like working on any projects. And I certainly didn't feel like going to the bazaar to buy vegetables. I just wanted to stay in bed all day. But, I forced myself to get up, if only to get out of my house for a few hours.

So, I walked in the rain to the bazaar, dodging cars and avoiding stares, getting crankier by the minute as I went along, and thinking I should have just stayed home. But then I got to the bazaar – a chaotic, packed marketplace where you can buy anything from live chickens, cow tongues, and tomatoes to brooms, batteries, and shoes – and I smiled. 

I don't know what it is, but the Telavi bazaar always puts me in the best mood. I have my apple guy, my cheese lady, my veggie lady and my potato guy – and they are always so happy to see me. We usually chat for a few minutes and they always smile and say, "kai gogo xar!" which means: "you're a good girl" – an odd, but nice, compliment.

My first stop was the tomato guy. I asked for half a kilo and he started picking out the best ones for me. He couldn't get the right amount though; the tomatoes all kept tipping the scale well over half a kilo. After several attempts to find a smaller one, he finally shrugged his shoulders and added two big tomatoes with a smile and a friendly "from me!" I thanked him for the free tomatoes and promised to come back soon. Hmm… maybe this day wasn't so bad after all!

Next I stopped to see my favorite vendor, the apple man. I love my apple man. He has the friendliest blue eyes and he always smiles and asks how I'm doing. I'm going to miss him. Anyway, I asked for 3 lari's worth of red apples, which he quickly bagged up for me. He started to hand me the bag, but then took it back and added in two more apples "from me!" Wow, free tomatoes AND apples?! I thanked him, wished him well, and started to walk away. But then he called me back and handed me a free banana too. I love this day!

With a big smile on my face, I finished up my shopping and headed to the USAID office. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my site-mates who I hadn't seen in a few weeks. We started to catch up on each other's lives when another Volunteer showed up. Then another, and another, and another! It's always nice to run into Volunteers, have lovely English conversations, and laugh about our crazy Georgian experiences. We all spent a few hours at the office and then decided to top off the day with a few beers – a perfect ending to what had become a perfect day.

As I walked home that evening, I was feeling very grateful for all of the unexpected surprises that day. I had a bag full of fresh fruits and vegetables from the most thoughtful Georgians. I had friends who made me laugh. And the sky was opening up and I actually saw the sun peek through the clouds. Could this day get any better?!

Turns out, it could. When I walked into my room, my landlord/host grandmother had left a vase full of tulips (my favorite flower!) on the table. They were absolutely beautiful. I went downstairs to thank her and she invited me to stay for coffee. We talked about my time in Georgia, as well as my return to America. She told me they are all going to miss me when I leave, and asked (as most Georgians often do) why I don't just stay in Georgia forever. 

On days like that, it's easy to think about staying. I have fallen in love with this country and the people here. Yes, certain things about Georgia drive me insane (like the cigarette smoke and lack of planning) and yes, certain people make me want to bang my head against the wall (like those drivers who aim their cars at me when I'm walking down the street). But for the most part, I appreciate the experiences I've had and the people I've met. It's been an amazing two years and it's hard to believe it's coming to an end. You know, according to Georgians, I'm a "good girl" – but I like to think I'm a lucky girl.