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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Only in Georgia!.............................

(Written January 15, 2008). Some days you just say to yourself, "Only in Georgia!". This is one of those days.

Today was the first day back in school after the holiday vacation. However, yesterday they announced on TV that schools in Georgia would not be starting until the 21st. I thought we were supposed to be going back to school today, so when I learned about the TV announcement, I texted my counterpart to find out what she knew. She said the school director hadn't said anything to her about a change in the plan, so we'd better go. She also told me not to expect many children to be there since it was cold outside (in Georgia that means it's cold inside as well).

Today also happened to be my host sister Nino's 17th birthday. Her Mom takes school pretty seriously, so I knew she'd be ready to go when the time came. We bundled up and started our 20 minute walk, but about 5 minutes into the walk we both started to hear loud music. I remembered blaring music had been playing the first day of the school year so I asked Nino if the music could possibly be coming from the school. The closer we got the louder it became, and sure enough, it was coming from the school. Nino said a famous New Year's song was being played (in Georgia they celebrate the "New" Year on January 1 and the "Old" New Year on January 14th). As predicted, very few students showed up for school (I'm sure the TV announcement didn't help). In one of my classes 2 of 15 kids showed up, so we had 2 students and 2 teachers, which is a pretty good ratio for public school! Unfortunately, someone had broken into the classroom over the vacation and stolen the small electric coil heater that was given to each class before Christmas. They also took some flowers according to my counterpart. Keep in mind that our school has 24/7 security guards!

After my scheduled classes I returned home to help with the festivities for tonight's big birthday supra for Nino. You can always tell it's the day of a big party because our host family always rubs the floor in the front room with a gasoline like substance which gives off noxious fumes throughout the evening's festivities. You would think that they could modify the schedule to do the floor treatment the day before the party, but they don't. The whole extended family is here to help in the afternoon, although the men generally hang around the petchi and smoke and eat, while the women do all the work. When I came in there was also another man in the front room I did
not recognize and we were not introduced. I went into the kitchen where the women were busy preparing a second cake (20" in diameter), several potato/carrot/onion/cabbage/mayonnaise salads and a mushroom dish using about 10 lbs. of mushrooms. I made myself useful by cutting the mushrooms into tiny pieces. Oh, how I long for my Cuisinart! As you may recall from our last post, Beso, our host Dad, and 2 partners have started a mushroom business in a vacant house next door. Needless to say we eat mushrooms at every meal. In the midafternoon some guests arrived from our host mom Eka's office to bring a big teddy bear to Nino and to toast her with shots of cha-cha (moonshine). The petchi in our room adjacent to the kitchen was fired up to cook much of the food in, but the first batch of chickens gave off so much smoke from the fat that our PC smoke detector went off. There I was in the smoky room with 6 adults and 2 kids who had never seen or heard of a smoke detector before. We cleared out the smoke but the room got pretty cold. I went into the front room to warm up (our room and the front room are the only two rooms in the house with petchis for heat) only to find that I was disrupting some sort of a religious ceremony. The man who I did not know was gently swinging a crucifix over a large jar of water while softly chanting prayers. I went back to the ladies in the kitchen to find out what was happening, and I was told that he was here to bless the mushroom house! I still don't know why he came in the middle of the preparations for a birthday supra to perform the ceremony or why the ceremony itself wasn't held in the mushroom house next door. Well, it's not yet 3 pm (6am for you) and there is much more to do before the 20+ guests arrive at 6pm. Some of the men are outside blowtorching the hair off the two piglets that our host family bought at the bazaar this morning and just killed and cleaned. Shortly they will be "doing time" in our petchi. To complicate things, our water pipes are frozen today with no hope of thawing before party time, so we will be drawing water from our neighbor's well for cleanup.

As I said at the outset, "Only in Georgia!"

Here is Beso's sister working on one of the many salads served at the supra.

You can never have too much khachapuri (it's the national dish)

a scene from the kitchen next to our room, just before the smoke detector went off (note the cake in the cabinet)

One of the piglets getting cooked in our petchi. The petchi is about two feet from my side of the bed in our room (we pulled the bed farther away during the supra for better cooking access).

The outside sink where all the dirty supra dishes ended up getting piled (after this picture was taken) while we waited for the water to unfreeze.

The stove top in the family kitchen. Almost everything is cooked on it or in the petchi (the oven doesn't work). Note the propane cylinder on its side. When you are running out of gas that's what you do first to try and get as much gas out of the cylinder as possible. Next you stand the cylinder up in a tub of hot water. When you can't get any more gas out after doing that, you have to get the cylinder refilled.

A picture of the five girls named Nino who attended the birthday supra, including the guest of honor (our host sister Nino) holding the youngest Nino's hands.

Monday, January 7, 2008


Since our last post we have been busy!

Mark's 60th birthday was celebrated by our family
with a huge supra and many toasts. His office
also celebrated all afternoon at work!

Irma, from Mark's office, got married and had a big wedding reception. She is the English speaker in his office, so, of necessity, they have become quite close. The party took place at her husband's family home, where she now lives with her husband in accordance with Georgian

This is the tent in the middle of the street in front of Irma's new house, where the wedding reception was held. There were about 150 people there. Cars had to find an alternate route to wherever they were going as the tent blocked the whole street. There were many toasts, and during the dinner, the head of the cow that was butchered for the meal was presented to the "Tamada" ( toastmaster) by the bride's family as a gift for his services. A great deal of eating, drinking and dancing took place, and when we left about 4 hours after the festivities started, the party was still going strong.

Here are a couple of typical Georgian fellows at the wedding.

Our host father has started a mushroom business with his brother in law in the empty house next to ours. They constructed a hot water heating system to keep a constant temperature in the mushroom rooms and they rigged up lights which shine on the mushrooms 24 hours a day. The mushroom season runs from about late November until May. Every day they harvest the mushrooms that are ready and send them on the night train to Tbilisi. As you can imagine, mushrooms have become a big part of our diet at home too!

Here is Beso stirring the "bamba". The bamba is something like peat moss that gets cooked before being put into clear heavy plastic bags in layers which alternate with layers of mushroom seeds.

The bags are kept in the dark for 14 days at a certain temperature and then slits are cut into the sides and they are hung in a room with lights shining on them. The mushrooms then start growing out the slits and are harvested daily when ready. It only takes a day or two from the time the mushroom can first be seen until it reaches full size and is harvested. Every night the mushrooms are sent on the night train from Zugdidi to Tbilisi, where they are sold at the bazaar the next morning.

We were walking down the street when one of Lisa's students spotted her and rushed up to say hello. Pretty soon the rest of the family showed up (along with a couple of the neighbors) and the parents and kids wanted us to come into the house for a visit. This kind of stuff happens pretty much every day. Here's a picture that we took of the kids. We had prints made up and gave one to each of them.

Our host mother, Eka, has two sisters. They are
a very close family. Each sister has a daughter close to the same age as our sister, Nino. The Moms and Dads spend a lot of time hanging around our house and watching television together. They also help with the mushroom business or the cooking, cleaning or whatever else is going on. This picture shows our host sister Nino and her father Beso in the middle, with Nino's two cousins and their fathers in the family's living room (the only room in the house, other than our room, which is kept heated in winter).

Eka's sisters and a visiting Aunt are gathered around the pechi for warmth while they enjoy a cup of Turquli kava.

We rounded up three Peace Corps Volunteers from the villages in the mountains (they lead a much more difficult existence than we do) to come to our room for a visit over the holidays. One could say that they were stand-ins for our own kids, who are about the same ages as our visitors. Our first thought was to have a big turkey dinner, but the price of turkeys at the bazaar was to the moon (about $50 for a 15 to 20 pounder live weight....and then you had to kill it, pluck it and clean it). Instead, we made eggplant parmesean. Unfortunately, we mistakenly used the family's holy oil to cook with!

We used our pechi (because the kitchen gas canister was empty) and cooked in the dark (because the electricity was out). Notice the headlamps on the cooks in the picture. Surprisingly, everything turned out great, thanks to Christie, Paul and Erik!

This week was the presidential election in Georgia. The current president
Mikheil Saakashvili

seems to have won, getting slightly in excess of 50% of the vote. Shortly before the election he came to Zugdidi and presented the City with a gift of 10 new tractors and 8 new buses, which have been on display in the center of town since his visit. He also gave each family in town (including ours) a 50 kg sack of flour and a voucher to get free firewood in the forest! He got our vote!

Here's a picture of our host father, Beso, with his
Saakashvili poster.

And finally, here's a picture of Lisa doing something in our room, while waiting for the laundry to dry.