This blog does not represent the position of the United States government or the Peace Corps as to any matter. All expressions of fact or opinion contained herein are solely those of Mark and Lisa Lebowitz and of no one else.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Start of School...................

(Written September 18, 2007). September 17th finally arrived. As is the Lebowitz Family tradition, Mark took my picture with my host sister Nino as we left the house all shiny and clean for the first day of school. The only thing missing was the school bus approaching from the rear on West River Road. We have taken that picture every year since Craig's first year in Kindergarten. As Nino and I proceeded on the 25 minute walk to school I began to hear very loud music playing, as though either a band was tuning up to play for a wedding or a car with a supersized boom box was approaching. The music grew louder until I realized it was coming from the front yard of a school (not mine) along our way, where many students were milling around. As we continued toward our school, I began to see many parents and children all heading in the same direction. Many were holding hands with each other, but what caught my eye in particular was how finely everyone seemed to be dressed and how nice everyone seemed to be "fixed up".
As we approached the school building we heard different music which grew in volume as we got closer. When I saw the building I was quite amazed. It is a large building, 2 stories high, which houses 1200 students. It is surrounded by a tall iron fence and a large paved enclosure. The place was teeming with people, mothers and fathers, teachers and students, big and small. Almost half of them were carrying large, beautiful flower arrangements. There were flower peddlers who had set up shop for the day outside the gates. Music was blasting and the children were running around like whirling dervishes, greeting friends, teachers and relatives. The traditional greeting here is either an "air kiss" or a regular kiss on the left cheek. This is done by everyone, regardless of sex or age. As is also the cultural norm here, there is no such thing as personal space, so you are constantly being squeezed, bumped into or or leaned upon by others who are going about their business.
Eventually I attempted to make my way to the main entrance to greet the director of the school ("superintendent"), Nino. Before I got there though, I was intercepted by the head of the English department, another Nino, who escorted me through the crowd to an area where her collegues were hanging out. (By the way, in case you have not surmised, Nino is a very popular name here for girls, just as Giorgi is for boys. If your name is Nino or Giorgi you get to celebrate on your birthday and on St. Nino's Day or St. George's Day as well!) Anyway, on the top steps of the school there was assembled a mixed group of children and administrators. As I was waiting for the opening words to mark the beginning of the new school year, I realized that the Director was already speaking into the microphone. The problem was that the crowd was making so much noise and running around that you could not hear anything. Eventually, the national anthem was played over the P.A. system and it managed to catch everyone's ear, afterwhich a small mixed choral group began to sing. The sound system failed twice during their performance, but they made a quick recovery each time. Then a girl, who must have been the student body president, addressed the group. Since I couldn't understand what she was saying in Georgian I became fixed on her outfit as she spoke. She wore a frilly blouse, short skirt and white Go-Go boots topped with white feathers! The girls here are stick thin from pre-pubescence until they reach middleage. It really looks as though they eat nothing (in another entry I'll tell you about all the great food they are not eating).
At the assigned moment the throngs began pulsing toward the door. We made our way up to the room where the English department hangs out. My immediate supervisor was so busy orchestrating so many people that she didn't have time to give me direction. I had asked for a schedule in advance but she said we would figure it out later. It is very Georgian to change plans at the last minute or not to make a big fuss about preplanning; so there I sat for the first hour of the first day of the school year. Eventually, a school business person showed up with a ledger. That really got all the teachers buzzing. Because they work part time for hardly any pay, each of them wanted to make sure she (there are no male English teachers in the school) was being properly compensated for the number of classes she was assigned to teach. I don't blame them. I feel that I am back in the pre-computer age of the 60's, where everything is recorded in longhand---the schedules, the business ledger and attendance at school. The Georgian Education Ministry had promised computers in the school by the start of the school year, but it hasn't happened yet. I think their attention would better be directed toward getting heat of some sort in the school building first. There is no heat, and in the winter everyone wears their long underwear, coats and boots during an abbreviated school day.
Well back to the first day. Finally, the teachers started to feel sorry for me and asked what I would be doing. At about that time Nino came up for air and said, "Maybe you could talk to the classes about why you are here and what you will be doing. I will be right back." That gave me a leisurely 10 minutes to come up with a plan. Following that 10 minutes, I was escorted to a classroom with 35 5th year students. One girl actually had her little brother sitting in the seat with her. There I was, with my immediate supervisor in attendance, ill-prepared to dazzle them with information about the goals of Peace Corps. Fortunately, however, the creativity Gods smiled on me and my " Dog and Pony Show" was launched!
In Georgia, all students refer to their teacher as "Mast". That is short for mastavlabeli, which means "teacher" in Georgian. Imagine an atmosphere where every kid is beckoning you as "Mast". The thought seemed to me to be very impersonal. After all, I wasn't going to call them "student". To avoid the uncomfortable feeling associated with being called "Mast", I had asked the kids in my camp to call me "Miss Lisa" ( the counter to "Measter Mark"), and I decided to go with that in school as well. "Mrs. Lebowitz" seemed way too long, "Lisa" seemed too informal and "Mrs. Lisa" didn't have the proper ring to me. Maybe it is my way of feeling more youthful. Soon after adopting that name though, the teachers also started calling me "Miss Lisa", but fortunately I nipped that in the bud and have since encouraged them to call me just plain ole "Lisa".
In my introductory lesson, I used a world map and my cell phone as classroom "realia" and tried to elicit from the kids the reasons why a middleaged, retired teacher might want to say good bye to her family and friends and come to Georgia for 27 months.

1. So Americans can learn about Georgians.
2. So Georgians can learn about Americans.
3. To let the Georgian students work with a native English speaker.

After my presentation, the kids posed questions to me. The rules were simple: "You may ask me anything except how much I weigh." I had to whisper in the ears of many who were paralyzed by the thought of asking a question. Ask me, "Do you have a husband?". Ask me," Do you have a dog?". We then pulled our chairs in a circle and had a pretend conversation "at the cafe".The most interesting question by far was put forth by two girls in different classes. "What is your dream?". When you see how poor these kids are and feel the discouragement of their parents with life in general, it's uplifting know that the kids still have hope and dreams for a better future. Things are changing in Georgia, and these kids represent the future of this country. The question session was a lot of fun and when the bell rang before all the questions were answered the kids actually groaned, which made me happy. After hugs and kisses all around, the class was off to run and socialize in the hall. I felt happy that they were enthused. I know this initial enthusiasm will wear off, but nonetheless, I am excited about working with all the students who seem so excited to learn English. A number of the students found it very difficult to formulate a question in English, and surprisingly, their teachers were eager to pass them by, but I made a point of trying to get something from everyone. Eventually everyone asked a question, although the contribution of some may have been as little as two words out of a five word sentence.
Following the trauma of teaching my first class, I delivered 3 more classes and that was it for the day. I took a wilted but beautiful bouquet I was given by one of my co-English teachers and left. Mark's office is only 2 big blocks away. He had texted me during the morning to see how it was going, but at the time I was too busy to respond. After I left the school grounds I leaned against a tree and texted him back. We met under a big tree in the park for lunch. If you have been following our blog, this was the same day as Mark's legendary blisters so it is better said that he "hobbled over to the park". At any rate, he totally enjoyed the rendition of my first day at school, and he filled me in with what was happening at his office . That is our life here in Zugdidi. After lunch, Mark went back to his office, and I walked home in the blazing sun with my umbrella for heat protection as all the women do here. I got home at 4 pm, just in time to dive into my book, "Ahab's Wife", and escape. I am happy. I am finally doing what I came here to do.

Typical seventh form students

Hanging by the water fountain between classes. No such thing as a line in Georgia!

Typical chaos in the halls between classes.

Brothers on the way to school.

My director Nino (left) and some of the other English teachers.
Campers at my English camp during the two weeks before the school year began.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

internet update......................

Lisa has been running an English camp for the past couple of weeks at the school where she will be teaching. She has two groups of approximately 20 kids each (older and younger) who come to the camp each day to play games, read books and sing songs, while speaking only English. The camp has been a big success, as evidenced by the fact that each day more kids show up than were there the day before. The mother of one of the boys in the camp somehow communicated to Lisa that her daughter had just returned from America (Ohio) where she had spent the past year as a foreign exchange student. On Sunday, Lisa and I were in town together on a family shopping trip to the bazaar (to buy more clothesline and clothespins), and who should we run into but the mother and daughter. The daughter speaks perfect English, and as a consequence, she immediately became my new best friend. It didn't take me long to enlist her services in my attempt to sort out my internet problems. She agreed to accompany me to the phone company guy to see what the real scoop is on getting DSL service at our home. We arranged to meet today and to visit his office together. Unfortunately, however, I mistakenly decided to wear my new shoes today. Although they are new shoes that I brought from home, I hadn't worn them until today. As I previously mentioned, it is close to 2 miles from our house to my office, and I generally walk back and forth (unless I am able to cajole a ride from some good samaritan). This morning I was about half way when I realized my new shoes were causing blisters on the heels of both of my feet. By the time I got to my office I was in major pain and was barely shuffling my feet as I walked. I would have taken my shoes off and walked barefoot if I didn't have such tender soles (Lisa calls them"baby feet"). As soon as I got to my office I took my shoes off, but when Gvantsa (the daughter) called I was forced to put them back on and shuffle off to meet her. The way I was forced to walk down the street was somewhat embarrassing, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to get things straight with the phone company. We got there and pushed our way to the front of the crush of people hanging around, and I watched as Gvantsa engaged in an animated conversation with the telephone guy (actually it appears that there is more than one telephone guy, since we were dealing with someone other than the person that I had dealt with before). Soon a question came up that required a phone call to my host mother, and before I knew what was happening she had left her work and joined us in the telephone guy's office. Jumping to the end of the story, I am now told that we CAN get DSL service here. However, it is DSL service that is routed over the "2" exchange, rather than the standard DSL service routed over the "5" exchange (whatever that means). Apparently, only the "2" exchange is available where we live. It appears that "2" exchange DSL is vastly inferior to "5" exchange DSL, but it still is DSL and is supposedly better than dial-up. The down side is that it will be "a month or two" before it can be installed. Using the Georgian multiplier of 3 (used when estimating the actual time of an occurrence vs. the expressed time of the occurrence), it will be from 3 to 6 months before this actually happens (and even then the performance of this connection will be suspect). None-the-less, I am now pleased and satisfied that we have done all that we can do, and I am no longer distressed over the absence of internet access at our home.

P.S. In case you are wondering, one of my co-workers took pity on me and had her husband come to the office with his car and give me a ride home tonight.

Anzor and Nani................

Our immediate neighbors are Anzor and Nani. They live in a very large house next door. I say "very large house", but I mean it is a very large skeleton of a house. Their house, like many others in the neighborhood, is a large masonry structure, without almost any interior improvements (i.e. it is a block shell of a house). Anzor and Nani are at our house often, and they frequently eat with us. They are always bringing things over that come from Anzor's garden or which Nani has cooked. All our left-overs travel in the opposite direction to Anzor's pigs (who are especially fond of watermelon rinds). We have never been invited over to Anzor and Nani's house, and perhaps that is because it is very spartan in nature. From the looks of it, they have constructed perhaps two rooms within an immense masonry infrastructure. From the outside, the house has a very haunted house-like look to it. Anzor works at the local Coca-Cola company, but I'm not sure what it is that he does there. He is missing lots of teeth, but the ones he has are all gold in color. Nani works in the same government office as our host mother Eka, and in fact, she is Eka's boss. Nani frequently doesn't get home from work until 8 each night, and often it is dark by the time she gets here. Nonetheless, she always walks the approximately 2 mile long route home along our very dangerous road, because the 2 Lari cab ride (approx.$1.33) is a budget breaker. Anzor and Nani speak no English whatsoever (actually that's not true, Anzor likes to say "thank-you"). The first night we met our host family, they had organized a big Supra (a special Georgian dinner, with lots of food and drink) for us. Anzor and Nani were there and Anzor acted as the Tamada. At some point during the course of the evening we were asked where in New York we were from, and we told everyone we were from Glens Falls. Immediately, Anzor jumped to his feet and shouted "James Fenimore Cooper"!! Anzor is a big reader, and he was familiar with The Last of the Mohicans and Cooper's Cave. We were shocked. Who woulda thunk?? Although Anzor and Nani live a simple life and have little in the way of money, they are very well self-educated, and they have perpetuated that trait in their children. Their oldest daughter is a doctor in Tbilisi. She speaks perfect English and accompanied Eka and Nino to our swearing in ceremony in Tbilisi. Afterward, she came with us to the bus station and made sure that we all got safely off to Zugdidi from the big city. Their second child, also a daughter, left two days before we arrived to start college at Harvard in the US, where she is "on a full ride", and their third child, a son, has just accepted a high Federal governmental position in Tbilisi. Simple, yet very caring neighbors who quite obviously value education.

P.S. Coincidentally, Nani just knocked on our window and presented Lisa with a bouquet of flowers she picked from her garden.

Here is Anzor about to have breakfast at our kitchen table. He brought over a melon from his garden (look at the size of it!) and is preparing to eat a piece after first having a shot of his home made cha-cha (moonshine). Apparently, that's the way you eat melon here.

Anzor cutting his "lawn" with a scythe . It certainly beats our host sister's effort to cut our "lawn" with a pair of scissors.

Nani in our kitchen.
Nani and Anzor's house from the road.

telephone pole...........

This is a telephone pole on the way from the center of town to my house. Double click on it to get a good view. And I wonder why it is that I can't get an internet connection where I live???


There is an area of Georgia that is famous for the wine which is made there (think the Georgian equivalent of the Napa Valley). It is located around Telavi, which is the nearest city of any size. Wine from this region is supposed to be very good and recently we noticed that there are places in Zugdidi where it is sold in BIG jugs. Yesterday, on her way home from school, Lisa stopped at a roadside stand and prepared to buy a jug for us to try. Fortunately, before the purchase was completed, she somehow realized that the stuff in the jugs that the guy was selling was not Telavi wine, but rather benzene. Guess we dodged a bullet there!! ************************************************************************ I couldn't resist posting this picture of Lisa, enjoying some wine in the yard with our host father Beso and a couple of his childhood friends, who also happen to be neighbors (the guy with the cigarette is a doctor). Notice that the wine glasses are full, as they always must be. You only drink wine when there is a toast and not casually inbetween toasts. Fortunately, the toasts are made frequently and generally the entire glass of wine is then drunk. You don't have to drink the entire glass, but most of the Georgians seem to do it that way. No matter how much you drink, however, the glass is always refilled to the top after the toast is completed, in preparation for the next one.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

internet woes..................

Well, my level of frustration is running high at the moment. In Gori, we had the luxury of a DSL internet connection in the home of our host family. Even though it is outrageously expensive here by Georgian standards (about $64 US/mo), it is something that I wanted and was willing to pay for. About two weeks ago, I got my host mother to take time off from her job to take me to the "phone company" to make the necessary arrangements for a DSL connection. It was hot as hell that day. After going from one dingy office building to another and from office to office within each of them (each 4th floor walkups I might add), we finally located the indidvual who appeared to be in charge of such things. He said "no problem" and that the phone company would do what needed to be done within a week. In fact, someone from the phone company showed up at our house the very next day. They checked out the line and told my host father that we would need to get a new telephone wire (we don't have a landline phone now, but the family used to have one) and run it from the house to the telephone pole in the street. In the succeeding days my host father (who, by the way, is approximately 13 years younger than I am) went to the Bazaar and bought the specified kind of wire, and then, with the aid of some people that he hired to help him, took down the old wire and restrung 130 meters of new wire from the house to the pole. Then he drilled holes and ran the wire from the point where it reached the side of the house at the roofline down to our room. When I tried to pay him at least his out of pocket costs to do all of this he absolutely refused to accept anything (that made me feel bad because I know that money is not in abundant supply in this household). Then nothing happened for the next week and one-half. Finally, I asked my host mother if she would again inquire of the man in charge of the phone company as to what was to happen next. This is not the kind of thing that you call someone on the phone about here. You must present yourself at the office, wait in line (more about lines in Georgia in a future posting) and then speak to the guy directly. This actually required 3 additional visits to the office of the phone company over a period of three days, since the only guy who apparently runs the phone company was out of town on the first attempt and was at lunch on the second try. Yesterday, my host mother finally succeeded in talking with the guy. Shortly after her meeting she showed up at my office (another 4th floor walkup in an only slightly less dingy building) and delivered the good news to me through the only person in my office who speaks both Georgian and English (needless to say I lean on her language skills a great deal). Apparently, it has now been determined, for the first time, that the telephone infrastructure in this neighborhood is such that DSL is unavailable here. This is after the phone company guy told us "no problem" in our first meeting and after the phone company crew came to the house and directed the installation of a new line from the house to the pole in order to make the necessary DSL connection!!! Needless to say, I was not happy, and now, a day later, I'm still not happy. Part of the problem is my own inability to communicate directly with the people in charge of such things. I have to rely on my host mother to convey what I want to ask and/or say, and she really doesn't speak more than a few words of English, so it's difficult to communicate with her. I am not giving up yet. I will either get the English speaker in my office to accompany me to the phone company or ask one of the very few other people that I have met who speak English to go with me. We do have a DSL internet connection at my office, but in order to make use of it I must do so at someone else's desk, which is inconvenient for me and a pain for the guy whose computer I am using. Also, the time here is 8 hours ahead of the US, and direct communications to the US really can't be made during my work hours because everyone is in bed then at home. I will report on my success or failure with respect to my efforts to obtain internet access in a future posting. I just felt the need to vent my spleen at this point.

Monday, September 10, 2007

continuation of last entry.............

Here are the rest of the pictures that I couldn't fit in the last entry for some reason.

This is a picture of our room before the mosquito net was erected.

Here is our neighborhood store.

Another room picture

Another view of the outside of our house. Our room is in the darker cement portion on the ground floor.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Our host family and our home...............

Our new home is in a city named Zugdidi in the northwest region of Georgia known as Samegrelo. We have been told Zugdidi has a population of 150,000, including the surrounding area, but it feels much smaller than that. The center of the city greets you with a beautiful large fountain and a broad boulevard. The two sides of the main street flank a large park in the center. The park contains huge trees and many park benches which give relief from the sun and provide refuge for people of all ages. All day the park is full of people who congregate to visit, play games (mostly "nardi"-- backgammon) and tend small children. On both sides of the boulevard are many small shops selling 7/11 type fare, as well as numerous beauty parlors in which you can buy your wedding dress while you get your hair done! In front of these stores are many peddlers selling everything----sunflower seeds in paper cones (everybody chews on them), all sorts of gossip newspapers, ice cream and ludi (beer). One block from the main street is a huge, very colorful bazaar with quite literally hundreds of vendors selling everything imaginable. Our house is situated on a residential street which is a 25 minute walk away from this part of the city . During the walk you must share the "sidewalk"/street with many cows and pigs who wander freely munching on the grass and trees. The road is full of potholes and cars are driving all over the place to avoid them (as well as the animals in the road). Unfortunately, the poor road conditions do little to deter the drivers from proceeding at extremely high rates of speed (which makes walking in the roadway quite dangerous). Our street (and every other street as well) has many very small Ma & Pa type stores, each the size of a large garden shed. Although the inventory of these stores is limited, they all sell the basics---cigarettes, vodka, cognac and beer (everyone here smokes and drinks). Although the people here primarily drink wine, the stores generally don't sell it, because every family has their own homemade wine which they drink all year round.
Like all the other houses on our street, our house is located behind a large gate and the perimeter of the property is fenced. We live with a family of three; Beso, Eka and Nino. Our immediate neighbors, Anzor and Nani, spend as much time at our house as they do their own, so you could say we live with a family of five. We occupy one half of the first level of the house. We have a private entrance as well as two interior doors which lead to the family's quarters. Our room is very large, 25'x15' with a 10' ceiling and 3 large windows. One wall has a large credenza with numerous drawers, closets and shelves. We have a long work table, a sofa, a large bed and a small woodstove known as a pechi for winter. The Peace Corps has supplied us with a large water filter which we use consistently (we have been told not to drink the water). It is situated on a makeshift table in the back corner of our room which also serves as Mark's shaving station. Our bed is currently sporting a large mosquito net which I was forced to erect because there are no screens on the windows and I was getting bitten to death nightly. I like to refer to it as "The Kasbah" . We also are lucky to have a fan. It has been so unbelievably hot here that unless the fan is blowing directly at you at all times, you sweat profusely. That goes for the night as well as the day. The only lighting in our room consists of two overhead bulbs, so we hunted all over and purchased (at the bazaar) one of the only lamps to be found anywhere in town . There is a nice oriental type carpet in front of the couch which actually dresses things up quite a bit. There is no vacuum cleaner so we are a good team at shaking our rug. We have fixed the place up pretty well with pictures cut from an Adirondack calendar and prized photos of family and friends. We also have a big map of Georgia taped to the wall on which we have labeled the locations of all our fellow G7 volunteers. Lying on the threshold outside our exterior door can usually be found the family dog, Sherry. She is an 8 mo. old Sharpei mix who actually looks a lot like our dog Jake. In Georgia we have yet to find a family who allows a dog in the house (most dogs don't have owners at all, much less a place to sleep indoors at night). Sherry tries to sneak in the house when no one is looking. She is still a puppy and is incorrigible at times, but all in all we like having her around. At the back of our room is a door that enters the small family kitchen. There is a gas stove fueled by a refillable propane cylinder (the oven doesn't work), a sink, small counter and a baby matsevari (fridge). Adjoining the kitchen is a storage room with cupboards to store all the pickles, jams, preserves and nuts that the family is constantly preparing. At this time of the year, there is a great deal of energy put into the pursuit of putting up food for the winter (another blog theme). From the small storage room you may either: go outside to the back of the house (where there is a sink, a pump, the garden and an outhouse), go into the family's living/dining room (since we took over one or the other) or enter the bathroom.The bath area actually consists of three very small rooms: one with a western style toilet (for which we are thankful since most bathrooms here have squatter toilets) and a washing machine!!!; the second with a small sink (cold water only); and the last (sort of scary to look at but functional) containing a tub, a clothesline and a big hot water tank mounted on the cement wall. Although the tub room is entirely crumbling cement (walls,floor and ceiling), the water is hot and the pressure is good so we are (very)happy.
The family sleeps upstairs. To get there you have to go outside and up an exterior staircase. This is sort of hard to feature in winter, but we will see. This brings up another interesting point. There is no central heat. As far as we know there will be 2 woodstoves downstairs and that's it. The Peace Corps will provide us with a kerosene heater if we want it, but the consensus seems to be that pretty soon both you and your clothes start to smell like kerosene and very few of the current volunteers actually use those heaters. We have pretty much decided that we are going to go with the Pechi and heat with wood. We would prefer to smell like smoke rather than kerosene anyway.
Here are some pictures of our house and family to give you a sense for what things are like. All in all, we are pretty comfortable here and happy that we landed with the family that we did. First up are some pix of the family. Eka and Beso after engaging in a water fight in the yard. Next is a picture of Eka and Nino at our swearing in ceremony, which they attended in Tbilisi. This is a picture of the whole family taken on an excursion that we made to the Black Sea, and finally, here's a picture of Lisa with Nani (the next door neighbor) and Eka. Here's a picture of the outside of the house. Our room is on the first floor, left hand side.

The kitchen, with Nino hard at work.

Our room, after the erection of the mosquito net.

My shaving stand near one of the windows in our room, where the light is good.

This is one of the three small rooms that together comprise the bathroom. As you can see, although we have a western style toilet, you practically have to sit side saddle , since there is no room for your knees between the toilet and the wall.

Here is the room with the tub in it. It looks bad but does the trick. I had a problem uploading the pictures to this blog entry. I will try and follow up with wnother posting whichwill include the rest of the pictures (although they will be out of order.