The Hanmer Guest House

Let me take a post to shamelessly plug the Hanmer Guest House. It was certainly the highlight of our trip and made everything we endured worthwhile. The house is owned and operated by Tony Hanmer and his wife, Lali. They were helpful in organizing our trip and their hospitality was, simply put, awesome.

The road from Zugdidi to Mestia is gorgeous. I’d say the highlight of the drive was probably the Enguri Reservoir, which was a fascinating shade of turquoise. Just before you get to Mestia, the highway passes through a region called Etseri, and if you get to Etseri and take a left at the 112 mile marker, you’ll be in a small village called Iskari. The guesthouse is about halfway up the road from the highway to the big stone watchtower. The trip itself was uneventful, although we ran into some snow when we got up nice and high, and we were glad to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle – although snow chains would have been better. Bring snow chains if you go in winter! We ignored Tony’s advice on this matter, and came to regret it.

Dinner the first night was a Chinese-style stir fry (one veggies, one chicken and ginger) with rice and some of Tony’s home-made ajika (a Georgian spicy pepper sauce). This was great, and not at all what we were expecting. We also got to sample some home-made Cointreau – a Mandarin-infused vodka sweetened with sugar syrup. I’ll just stop saying home-made now, because everything we had was home-made – mostly from local products that Tony and Lali grew or bought from their neighbors. I have to say, I’ve always loved the *idea* of eating home-grown and local products, but now having done it for several days, I can say that it is also great in practice.

Our other meals included a chicken/rice/veggie stew, a beef soup, and of course kubdari, a Svan specialty of well-spiced beef baked into bread. We had fresh-baked bread daily, a variety of cakes for desert – and Tony even had a Western drip coffee machine! We also got to have some wine that Lali made with grapes from her family’s land in Kakheti. It was three days of awesome, organic, natural food and beverage.

When we weren’t exploring the region, Tony and Lali kept us entertained. Tony has a nice, brand-new TV which can read a USB drive and play digital videos. In the evenings, we watched some movies and music videos from Tony’s extensive library. Lali taught us a card game which was very hectic and exciting. We conversed about various topics and cultures and exchanged stories from our travels. Tony is a very knowledgeable guide to Svaneti and gave us great tips on where to go and how to get there.

Our rooms were newly renovated, with comfortable beds, new furniture, and heaters. The bathrooms were also newly renovated and had hot and cold running water (although the hot goes out if the power does). Everything was clean and we were very happy with the accommodations.

*****

Our first day in Svaneti, we went to Mestia. The road was snowy and a bit difficult, but we followed the local marshutka (it makes a trip from Iskari to Mestia twice a week) and made it without incident. Mestia has a couple restaurants and stores, a Liberty Bank branch, and a teeny tiny airport. Apparently there is also a hospital, although fortunately we had no occasion to visit it. There is a cultural museum which is supposed to be fantastic, although it was closed the day we went (sad!). The main drag was refaced as part of Misha’s tourism development program, and so looks very shiny and out of place.

From Mestia, it is not a long drive to various ski locations. We visited one and I was tempted to learn to ski, for the first time ever. Kids were doing it! The road up to the ski slopes offered great views, and I took a lot of pictures of snow-covered pine trees. Unfortunately the road was also unplowed and super bumpy.

On the trip back down from Mestia, we failed to make it up the hill to the guesthouse (seriously, bring snow chains!), and had to leave the car parked by the highway and hike up the hill on foot.

On our second day, we lost power because of snow. Power continued to be intermittent throughout the trip, but the guesthouse is well-equipped for dealing with a power outage. We hiked up to the Svan watchtower and took pictures, and then a bit further up to an old wrecked building which used to belong to the local bandit chief, until Misha sent ten helicopters to shoot up the house and burn it down. According to Tony, 600 people attended the funeral, but also life in the area has been much safer since the bandits were, er, disbanded. Such is the contradictory nature of law enforcement actions in Georgia.

It was sort of interesting to see bullet holes in the walls and warped and twisted metal. The whole place reminded me of Ozymandias.

We came back to the guesthouse and helped Tony shovel out some things – the snow had gotten quite ridiculous by that point, and people with insufficiently sloped roofs were on top of their houses and garages shoveling them off lest they collapse from the weight of it. Luckily the guesthouse roof takes care of itself, but there was a shed that needed liberation, as well as paths to the gate, the woodpile, and the shed.

Did I mention the guesthouse is also a functioning farm? Yeah, we ate cheese from one of Tony’s cows. It was good!

*****

By the time we left, Tony said he had never seen that much snow piling up against the house. That did not bode well for our journey home, but that’s a matter for another post.

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Lunch in Zugdidi

There are two main routes to Mestia/Upper Svaneti. One goes through Lower Svaneti – if you were coming from Tbilisi, you’d hang a right at Kutaisi and head straight north, through Lentekhi. This was our initial plan because it looks like it makes more sense if you plot it on a map.

However, we were advised to take the second route, which goes through Zugdidi, because even though Zugdidi is over an hour in the wrong direction, the road up there is supposed to be better-maintained. That turned out to be a good call for several reasons, but the reason I’ll focus on in this post is that visiting Zugdidi was a great (if brief) experience.

Now, I should stipulate that we were only there long enough to locate a restaurant, have lunch, and leave, but that alone was enough to make me want to come back. As you may recall I lived with a Megrelian host family in Tbilisi, and perhaps that is why I’ve always loved Megrelian food (it’s certainly the only plausible explanation I can imagine for why I love ghomi so much). But also, Megrelian food has a spice profile that is much closer to my ideal than regular Georgian food.

In fact, I had suggested stopping in Zugdidi for lunch for this very reason. I traveled with one old friend and two new friends, and the new friends are from Korea and have only been in Georgia for about four months, and were missing the spicy and varied dishes of their homeland, much as I had done in my first few months in Georgia, before I really learned about how to navigate Georgian food. I thought perhaps a good Megruli kharcho would show them that there’s more to the cuisine here than the four things Georgians always brag about.

We decided to ask someone for a restaurant recommendation (not having done our research beforehand, foolishly) and so we parked in what looked like the city center and stopped some young people, two girls and a guy, to ask about restaurants. One thing that was notable is that we did the entire exchange in Georgian – they didn’t even try speaking English to us, as most people who know some English do when they hear our accents – and I wonder if that’s a thing about Samegrelo, or Zugdidi, or just these three people. They also didn’t try Russian. The guy recommended one restaurant – Diaroni – prompting one of the girls to laugh as if the idea of going to Diaroni was hilariously bad. Then he recommended Mendzeli, and when we asked them which was better if we wanted our food very spicy, the guy said Mendzeli, and told us we could ask for the food extra spicy (which turned out not to be true – the restaurant did not do extra spicy – but it turned out to be just fine anyway).

So off we went to Mendzeli (which was actually just called Mendzel – interesting that there is no nominative ending on it, wonder if that’s a Megrelian thing) where the waiter also did not attempt to speak to us in a language other than Georgian. The waiter did a good job of putting up with our odd requests and general air of n00bishnes and steering us towards the correct culinary decision, which in this case was Megruli kharcho with veal. One of our party attempted to order a chicken dish – first kharcho, but the waiter explained that chicken kharcho was not in season and anyway veal was better, and then some other chicken thing that would have had to have been made from scratch and taken forty minutes, and so he caved and got the veal kharcho. The waiter also suggested elarji, to which I enthusiastically agreed, and I asked for one, and he explained that you could only order elarji in portions of two, and no one else wanted it but I prevailed upon them to agree to try it and when it came it turned out that everyone loved it so much that actually we should have ordered four.

In the past I have been put off somewhat by Georgian service, but upon this event I began to feel that I was finally not just used to it, but starting to appreciate it. I mean, it can be hard to explain to foreigners that a particular dish is the house/regional specialty, or has to be eaten a certain way, or is out of season, and having been a waiter I can say that is is often a little frustrating to try to explain things to customers who lack the proper context to understand the establishment that you work for. I think often Georgian waiters will simply freeze up or say nothing when they don’t really know how to approach an explanation. It would be cool if there were some kind of guide to getting the most out of a Georgian restaurant… I wonder who could write something like that? I wish I had the time. In any case, our waiter did a great job and we tipped well.

The other interesting thing is that we ordered beers, and the waiter asked us if we wanted the beers before the meal. I’d never been asked that before, and I realized that Georgians and Americans(/Canadians/Brits) are working on not only different service customs, but also different drinking customs, and therefore we were both making different sets of assumptions about when drinks should come. This waiter was the first person to explicitly address the issue, and it made me realize that not serving drinks right away is not some weird quirk of Georgian service – it’s actually perfectly attuned to the Georgian habit of not drinking without food. Of course Georgians don’t start drinking without some food on the table, and so of course the waiters don’t bring the beers until the food is out or almost out. The beers would just get warm.

On the other hand, we’re so used to drinking while we wait for our meals that it seems not just strange, but rude and/or incompetent, that waiters make us sit and wait with nothing on the table until our food is out. How many complaints about Georgian service could be avoided if expats knew that all they had to do is ask explicitly for their drinks to come out right away, and they would? In any case, again, it’s super cool that this waiter was hip to that cultural difference and knew to ask us if we’d like our beers before our meal.

Oh, and of course, the food: the kharcho was great – the veal was not too fatty and there were no bone shards; the spice was on the mild end of what we like but still noticeable, and the overall flavor was fantastic. My friends also shared a kuchmachi, and said it was very good as well. The prices were reasonable for everything, including the beer. And, the decor of the restaurant was beautiful – art and decorative plates were hung on the walls and there were cool stained-glass windows depicting Georgian cultural scenes, like dancing.

*****

Aside from the great restaurant experience, I also noticed that Zugdidi and the surrounding region was more colorful than the rest of the country. It seemed like many of the houses were decorated and care had been taken to make the outside look attractive and maintained – this is a sharp contrast to what I have come to expect, which is dilapidated exteriors that belie their beautifully-renovated insides. There were also a few houses that were colored in pastels! What!

Not just the houses, though – the clothes were so colorful that they were almost garish at times. One couple who came into the restaurant would not have looked out of place among the cast of Saved by the Bell. It’s an incorrect stereotype that all Tbilisians wear all black all the time, but Tbilisi does tend mostly towards darker and more muted colors (although bright red pants on women seem to be in now) and the difference in Zugdidi was notable.

Stray observation: Zugdidi had several stores named “boom” – there was a coffee boom and a techno boom, and another one, if I remember correctly. I don’t know why they like the word “boom” in Zugdidi, but that was interesting.

Finally, in Samegrelo we saw a sight none of us had ever before seen in Georgia: a person was rollerblading. Just rollerblading down the street, like you do, except in Georgia. Yeah, Zugdidi is awesome.

*****

In conclusion, if you’re in the neighborhood, I recommend getting lunch in Zugdidi.

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Off to Svaneti

Well I realize that I have not posted since I started my new job.  I am now teaching MYP Design (no more English!) at an IB school here in Tbilisi.  It is a lot more work than TLG, to say the least, and most of my free time is spent on things that have little to do with Georgia, which is why I don’t post about them.  So, there’s my excuse.

But now I’m taking a trip to Svaneti.  We plan to hit Etseri, Mestia, and Ushguli, and possibly swing by Oni on the way back if we have time for a detour through Racha.  I’m vaguely ashamed that I haven’t been up there before (also on my list of places I’m ashamed not to have made it to yet: Zugdidi, Sataplia, Mtatsminda!) but I am really bad at taking initiative with travel plans, and so I’ve really only been to places when someone else has said “hey, let’s go to such and such” and I’ve been free at that exact time.

What this means for you, reader, is that I might post about a new thing!  A new thing in Georgia!  Well, new for me, anyway.  At this point most of you have probably already been to Svaneti.  Let’s hope I get lots of insights and they still make sense when the altitude sickness wears off.

Ciao!

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Free Speech

I have just realized that Georgian culture does not respect, or even really recognize, freedom of speech.

***

One might ask why it took me four years to notice this. It’s because freedom of speech is so deeply ingrained in my culture that I actually have trouble processing a line of reasoning that does not assume freedom of speech is the default.

Americans recognize limits on freedom of speech. The canonical example is that you do not have the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre: this may incite a panic and result in injury. Other examples of the limits of free speech include perjury (lying under oath), slander (lying in a way that damages a person’s reputation), divulging classified information, and conspiring or inciting someone to commit a crime.

We recognize these limitations as exceptions which prove the rule: each exception implies that other forms of speech are assumed to be acceptable. This collection of exceptions implies that freedom to say what you want is the default, and anyone who wants to limit this freedom must produce arguments and evidence showing that the speech in question is both wrong, and likely to cause harm or damage to individuals.

We are so keen to protect freedom of speech that we accuse private entities of censorship any time they act to limit speech in their own media. If I delete certain comments on this blog I am accused of censorship. If a company penalizes someone for saying something (like when A&E suspended the Duck Dynasty guy for ranting about the gays) they are accused of censorship. In other words, we are so attached to freedom of speech that many people favor expanding the concept from the public into the private sphere.

***

This morning I read a quotation from the Georgian foreign minister regarding comments from the Swedish foreign minister criticizing the new government for using the courts to get revenge on Saakashvili and his party. Here’s one translation of the quotation:

On the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence. Everyone calls on us for this and we fully agree that it should always be protected, but, on the other hand, certain processes cannot be given any classification. Mr. Bildt has given classification to the trial that is not over yet and nobody knows what the final point will be. He called the trial politically motivated. In my opinion, this is wrong because this is some sort of pressure on the court and on the whole trial.

So, in other words, on the one hand, there is a presumption of innocence and the trial may be politically motivated – but on the other hand, it is wrong to point these things out because it may influence the outcome of the trial. It might be wrong to put Misha on trial, but it is equally wrong to criticize putting Misha on trial, and since you are as wrong as I am, I get to ignore whatever you say.

I don’t want to get into the weeds of the political element of the trial – I am of two minds about the whole thing – but this is notable because it is a style of argumentation that I have only encountered in Georgia. Instead of engaging with the substance of a criticism, many Georgians prefer to find some reason why making the criticism was inappropriate and then act as if that reason relieves them of the burden of having to refute the central argument of the critique.

It’s like:
Swedish FM: “Hey, you shouldn’t be doing this thing.”
Georgian FM: “Oh? Maybe you’re right. However, you spoke out of turn, so therefore I am going to ignore what you said and do this thing anyway without even considering your argument.”

***

The crux of the matter is that the ability to countenance, let alone make, this kind of argument must rest on a foundation in which the right to speak is contoured very differently than it is in America. It is mediated by the speaker’s social, political, and moral standing as well as the context of the situation in which the speech occurs.

Consider my favorite open letter, addressed in a previous post. As I said, the substance of the argument is that free speech is not allowed in certain places and times or by certain people or in support of certain ideas. At the time I wrote that post, I thought that this argument was so patently ridiculous that no thinking person could take it seriously. Now, I’m not so sure.

The signatories work almost entirely in the social sphere – artists, politicians, homemakers, civil servants – and not a scientist or mathematician or engineer among them. These are people who eat, sleep, and breathe the social context. To them, an argument like “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school” holds water. I’ll add to that “you shouldn’t hold a rally that puts gay people near a school, or near a church, or near a place where Georgian heroes died, or on a date around when Georgian heroes died…” The list goes on and on, because the freedom to demonstrate in public – part and parcel with freedom of speech more generally – is only available to those who demonstrate in favor of the prevailing social opinion. In Georgia, you have the freedom to choose between conforming or staying home.

***

Of course, I recognize a difference between criticizing someone for saying something, and actually censoring them. In the case of the Swedish FM, he was criticized and his freedom of speech was never actually impinged – instead, his inappropriate exercise of free speech was used as an excuse to dismiss his point. In the case of the May 17th demonstrators, their freedom of speech actually was taken away by way of a campaign of threatened and actual physical violence.

I have heard a lot of Georgians say that they believe that gays have the right to *be* gay, and even have the right to engage in gay behavior – in private. However, many Georgians very sincerely believe that no one has the right to speak in favor of gay people, gay behavior, or gay rights.

It’s also not just about gays, of course. Consider the law proposed to Parliament that would prohibit speech that was offensive to “the faithful.” I’ve been told a number of times, by a number of Georgians, that I “can’t” or “don’t have the right to” say the things that I say about various aspects of Georgian society, most of the time when they related in some way to modern Georgian religion or traditional Georgian sexism.

Georgians have been telling me for years that they do not value the freedom of speech – I was just too incredulous to believe they were serious.

In closing, I’d like to encourage any readers who are interested in the merits of free speech to read what John Stuart Mill said on the matter. It is a good read, a deservedly classic and revered work on the subject, and is as concise, compelling, and influential an argument for freedom of speech as any you’ll find. Plus it’s in the public domain, so you can read it for free:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” – John Stuart Mill

***


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Georgian Hospitality

One of the traditions Georgians are most proud of is their tradition of hospitality. I have been the beneficiary of this hospitality on countless occasions over the last four years, many of which I have not had the opportunity to write about. One stands out particularly in my mind for being the time when I had one of my epiphanies about Georgian Hospitality, and it is very sad to find it in my collection of unpublished drafts – I could have sworn I had told this story on my blog, and it turns out I had not. It illustrates one of the two important differences I have noticed between Georgian and American hospitality.

So, here is the text of a draft I wrote almost exactly three years ago – specifically, June 26th, 2011:

I have now been living in Georgia for just about ten months. During the course of these months, things here have begun to seem ordinary or everyday to me. The really good things about Georgia become expectations that I take for granted; the really bad things become frustrations that I assume that I will have to deal with indefinitely. Nothing is new anymore.

That is, of course, until a day like today.

So I’ve been thinking about Georgian hospitality. Because I have become very used to Georgian hospitality, it is very easy for the stand-out aspects of Georgian hospitality to sort of fade into the background. Recently I found myself thinking, “is Georgian hospitality meaningfully different from other cultures’ hospitality?”

And in some respects, it’s not. When I was growing up, there was a whole separate set of rules to be followed around “company.” The guests got the place of honor at the table, they got to use whatever things we had at our disposal, they got priority in every decision, and they got the “good china” – in other words, when I grew up in America, many families had a set of dishes and utensils for daily use, and another, separate set that only came out when you had “company.”

So I’m well aware of the idea of guests being treated like visiting dignitaries and the hosts receiving no compensation. Georgia operates just like my childhood guest treatment lessons predict – the guests get to sit in the best seat, eat the choicest cuts of meat, decide what to watch on TV, etc.

But Georgian hospitality does stand out – in one very significant respect – from American hospitality. Georgian hospitality is extended, pretty much invariably, to strangers.

Tonight I was on my way home from Buckswood School. I got to the bus stop in Tskneti and there was no bus there. I heard some Georgian men talking in a small cabin near the bus stop.

Now, if I were in the mountains in America somewhere, various concerns would cross my mind very seriously. I might worry that some Deliverance-style events might occur. I might be concerned that the people in the cabin wanted privacy and would be inclined to shoot trespassers. I might just be worried that the people would be untrusting and unfriendly. I might be worried that I had stumbled upon a hideout for criminals.

But I’m not in the mountains in America, so I didn’t worry about crime or hostility. Instead, I thought, “if I ask these guys when the next bus to Tbilisi is, I bet I’ll get not only information about the bus, but also something to drink while I’m at it.”

Because the truth is, one of the main differences between Georgia and America – one of the differences that I have not fixated on as of yet in this blog – is that in America, people are sometimes incredibly friendly and generous, and sometimes very rude and standoffish; but in Georgia, people are almost always incredibly friendly and generous.

And that’s it. I didn’t write the end of the story, didn’t publish it in any version, apparently.

So the rest of the story goes like this: I went up to the little cabin to ask about bus departure times. They did indeed tell me when the bus would come – about 20 minutes – and they did indeed sit me down for some chacha. They also had some leftover khinkali from the day (turns out the cabin was the kitchen of a restaurant which turned out to be the best restaurant I have ever eaten at in Georgia) which they fried up and fed me. We talked about my job and my country and basic things that I could speak of in my limited Georgian. Then the bus came, I thanked them, and I went on my way, promising to return to eat at their restaurant when it was actually open during the day. I did, and, as I said, the food was sublimely good. I took friends there who agreed – one friend said it was the best pork he’d ever had anywhere.

A sad epilogue is that I went back to that same restaurant a few weeks ago, and found out that their chef had died. Indeed, the food was not as good anymore: a true culinary talent had passed from this world, and I just feel lucky to have had a chance to partake of his fare several times during my first summer in Georgia.

What I took from this story has stayed with me: you can count on Georgians to welcome strangers in a way that you can’t count on Americans.

**************************

In the three years since, another difference between Georgian and American hospitality has made itself known to me. My parents – especially my father – taught me that my job as host was not only to give the guest the best of what we had, but to make the guest feel “at home”. There is an ongoing relationship between guest and host, and as that relationship matures, the guest should be made to feel increasingly comfortable in the home of the host. This can be seen as a shift from formality to informality, but that’s an abstract way of looking at it.

A more concrete way might be to consider getting a beverage from the refrigerator. If I were a first-time guest in someone’s house, I would probably not just go to their fridge, look inside, and help myself to whatever drink caught my eye. I would consider that presumptuous and rude. However, at some point later in the guest-host relationship, I would do just that. I have many friends and family members who I am familiar enough with to feel comfortable raiding their fridge when I am a guest, and the only limiting point of protocol would be that I would ask before taking the last of something.

One problem with the model of the host offering a beverage and the guest accepting is that the guest will find it harder to get a beverage when they want one – instead, they will often end up with an unwanted beverage accepted out of politeness, and they will sometimes want a beverage in a case where the host has neglected to offer one. This is not just about beverages – it’s about the entire ritualized procedure of a guest-host relationship, up to and including meals and activities and the supra.

In some ways, you can view the guest-host relationship in my corner of American culture as a shared journey in which the beginning consists of the host offering the guest a beverage, getting it from the fridge, pouring it, and serving the guest – and the end consists of the guest going into the fridge and getting what they want (and knowing that this is okay as well as where the cups are). As the relationship becomes more familiar, it becomes more comfortable and the strictures of formality give way to the efficiency of just getting your own beverage.

From what I have seen of Georgian hospitality, that process is either slower or nonexistent. With the exception of my two Westernized Georgian friends, there has been no movement among my friends or family members along the path of the guest-host relationship that suggests that one day I might feel comfortable raiding their fridge. Georgian hospitality, to me, seems stuck in that formal modality, where the host is forever serving a beverage to the guest and the guest is never really made to feel “at home”.

I have to note, I’m not criticizing this – I don’t mind being served at others’ homes, or stepping into the role of servant in my own – I’m just pointing out that it’s an important but subtle difference that explains some of the experiences I’ve had as a guest in Georgian homes.

And of course I’d be remiss if I did not point out that in a host family, the situation is somewhat different because there’s a different journey – the journey from stranger to family member – and so the guest-host relationship eventually gives way to the family relationship, and the volunteer is treated much like another son or daughter.

Still, I often feel less comfortable – more honored, but still less comfortable – as the subject of Georgian hospitality than I do when I am enjoying Western hospitality. At first I chalked this up to unfamiliarity or language barrier, but after several years and many conversations with other foreigners about this feeling, I feel comfortable making the generalization that Georgian hospitality seems to have a tendency to be somewhat more formal and formalized – and also somewhat more ritualized and restricted – than Western hospitality, and to persist in this formality, often indefinitely.

I get the sense that Georgians themselves feel much more comfortable with following the procedures and norms of the formalized guest-host relationship, and possibly don’t notice that it can make us feel less comfortable, or can seem less friendly, especially when the situation persists after repeated meetings.

*****************************

Of course, hospitality is a system, and perhaps the two stray observations I have made here can be related. It makes sense, in a society in which hospitality is often extended to strangers, to have the relationship governed by a relatively strict set of procedures and norms. It makes sense for interactions that are often for strangers to have formal and ritualized components.

For Americans, for whom hospitality is almost exclusively directed towards friends and family, it makes sense that the formality is just a formality – something to be dispensed with as soon as the proper motions can be gone through to establish a shared basis of interaction, a basic set of ground rules.

(It’s worth noting that this is similar to David Graeber’s insight that when you want something from a friend or relative, you tend to use an informal and non-numerical system of favors, and when you want something from a stranger, you tend to use a formal, impersonal, numerical system of money.)

I wouldn’t bet on the explanatory or causal power of this guess, but certainly it seems that the two differences I’ve noted in this post are complementary, in a sense.

I am tempted to relate these insights to a sociopolitical notion of hospitality and to how Americans, Europeans, and Georgians respond to foreigners – but this post has already run long, so perhaps I will leave that as an exercise for the reader (or commenter).

Posted in Adventures in Adventures in Georgia, Culture Shock!, Host Family | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Why I Teach Programming

I teach programming for two reasons: to increase the diversity of the tech industry, and because I believe that the skills used for programming are both relevant to our lives and transferable to non-programming fields.

I’ve read arguments that everyone should learn to code, and I’ve read arguments that not everyone should learn to code. I’ve even read arguments that not everyone *can* learn to code. I don’t feel that I need to pick one side or the other in these arguments – for me it is enough to say that, at the very least, more people should learn programming than do now.

Diversity in the Tech Industry

Lack of diversity in the tech industry is a problem. It is a problem because it creates a culture in which women feel excluded and demeaned. It is a problem because it fails to provide identifiable role models to vast numbers of children growing up and wondering what they can do in their lives. It is a problem because it results in products that perpetuate exclusion.

In my school, basic coding is a required subject, because I teach all technology students in grades 8-10 and I designed the curriculum that way. I explicitly think of this as a feminist project (among other things). Based on the model of Stuyvesant High School – my alma mater – we can conclude that introducing girls to the realities of computer science at the earliest opportunity increases their participation and interest in the subject later. My hope when starting out was that I could have a similar effect on the gender ratio in my school’s upper level, elective CS courses. Of course, I can’t know that until next year at the earliest, but it’s something that’s always in my mind.

What I do know is that many of the students in my classes who are the most engaged, productive, and creative with coding are the girls. By coincidence, the four best projects in my classes so far have been made by girls (you can view them on my class demo site), and I am very proud of this fact inasmuch as it relates to my goal of promoting gender equality.

The drawback of both my school and Stuyvesant is that they are elite – mine due to price, and Stuyvesant due to a competitive entrance exam. Both of these barriers to entry perpetuate exclusion. What I would like to do as one of my next products is to see if I can promote CS education across lines of race and class. This is why I am in favor of initiatives to introduce rigorous and comprehensive CS classes to all public schools.

Skills Transfer

Computer science and programming education promotes computational thinking. Computation is, at its core, the execution of a set of ordered instructions. Learning to work with sets of ordered instructions – how to give them, how to understand them, and how to anticipate their outcome – has applications in virtually every field of human activity. This is especially true when some of those instructions are repeated – when they become an algorithm.

Many students only learn algorithms in the context of mathematics – they learn one algorithm for each arithmetic operation (or two, in the case of division: long and short), and perhaps later they learn some more, or perhaps they don’t. Algorithms are immensely important, though, and so it is unfortunate that people don’t study them explicitly. Most things run on algorithms. Nearly everything that I am notably good at, I am notably good at because there is an underlying algorithm which I have learned and optimized. I have an algorithm for packing a car trunk. I have an algorithm for winning 2048. I have an algorithm for finding something out on Google. I have an algorithm for debugging code.

You probably have algorithms, and the better you are at something, the more likely you are to be able to articulate one. What you might now know is that being able to think algorithmically will make you able to get really good at a lot of things really quickly. If you don’t believe me, try it!

At a higher level, computation is about breaking problems into smaller pieces and articulating a solution for each piece. It is about building and understanding systems. These are valuable life skills. The world is full of systems to understand and problems to solve.

We teach biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and general science to students – not because we think they will all become biologists, but because we want them to understand the scientific method. The scientific method is important, but computational thinking is more important. Computational thinking fully encompasses the scientific method – which is, after all, precisely an algorithm: a set of ordered instructions which becomes immensely powerful through repetition.

Of course, the hard sciences also teach students how the world works – and our world is a computed world, which means that computer science ought to take its place among the hard sciences. There’s no compelling reason why it’s more important for me to know what mitochondria do than to know what a DNS server does, and yet I learned about mitochondria in High School but I learned about DNS servers in my late twenties, in the course of fixing some problem I was having with my computer.

And that brings me to one last point: computer skills are of immense value both theoretically *and* practically. Computational thinking is an immensely valuable cognitive tool but computer science also provides you with the experience to be able to make the most of the physical tools that we encounter every day.

Some have argued that just as you don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car, you don’t need to know how a program works to use a computer. Correct, but my dad taught me how an engine works anyway, along with how to change a tire and check the oil, because he thought there was value in having the theoretical and practical skills needed to understand and maintain something that I used every day.

So that’s why I teach kids to code.

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Advice for Expats: Health and Medicine

While I usually use this blog for advice and information about Georgia in particular, I couldn’t turn down the chance to contribute to HiFX’ new expat tip campaign (http://www.hifx.co.uk/resources/expat-tips/), which offers quality advice from expat experts to those looking to move abroad. With a few modifications I think this advice might even be applicable to people living in their own countries as well, but let me not oversell it – you can decide for yourself.

Getting sick is no fun, and it can be especially stressful and even scary when it happens in a foreign country. Particularly if you are coming from more developed nations into less developed nations, you may have concerns about the quality of local doctors and local medications. On occasion I have encountered situations that proved these concerns justified. That’s why I’ve developed a set of strategies that really come in handy for dealing with foreign medical services. What they come down to is: research everything, then check, then double-check.

In a previous post I went over ways to track down medications you already know you need – finding the local equivalents of anything from Advil to Zyrtec. This post is more about what to do if you actually have to go to a doctor.

Research your condition

When you get sick, it’s a good idea for you to have some idea of what your condition is and what the treatments should be. Even when I lived in my home country, I used to research my symptoms in order to decide when it was time to go to the doctor, and that skill has served me very well in Georgia.

Knowing what to expect when you go to the doctor can help you to judge the quality of the care you are getting and serve as a guide in case a language barrier prevents you from communicating effectively with doctors. It might also help you to find out the words for likely tests, procedures, and conditions if language might be an issue.

Once, I went to the doctor with abdominal pain that I thought could be appendicitis. When the doctor ordered an ultrasound, in Georgian, I knew what he meant and that the test was indicated based on my symptoms. This reassured me and made me feel like I was in good hands and that I was successful in communicating my symptoms to the doctor. On the other hand, if he had ordered an x-ray, I would have been worried that the doctor either didn’t understand me or didn’t know what he was doing.

Check your prescriptions

A lot of doctors in a lot of countries tend to over-prescribe medications. In Georgia it is rare for me to leave a doctor’s office with fewer than four prescriptions. After a few mishaps and a bunch of wasted money, I now go to the internet before I go to the pharmacy.

Here is where knowing the local language comes in handy. Make sure the doctor tells you the names of the medications they prescribe, instead of just writing them down – apparently doctors’ bad handwriting is an international phenomenon. You’ll probably want to try several ways to transcribe the names into Latin characters, if they aren’t already. Once you find the drug, you have to research the active ingredients, indications, side effects, and drug interactions yourself.

This research may be tedious, but it is important – one doctor here prescribed a cough medicine for my son when he was an infant. I researched the active ingredient and it turned out that this medicine was not recommended for children under 2 because it interacted badly with their developing respiratory system and could actually make their illness worse, not better. Needless to say I did not buy that medication, or go back to that doctor.

I’ve also been prescribed antibiotics for stomach aches, sore throats, and even colds. These antibiotic prescriptions for viral infections are not just unnecessary, they are dangerous – they can cause dysbiosis and they encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you’re prescribed a medical procedure, check that too. If you don’t want unnecessary medications, you want unnecessary surgery even less. If you don’t trust yourself to do the research, it could also help to get a second opinion – maybe even put in a call to your doctor back home, who could help you weigh your options.

Double-Check your prescriptions

So you’ve researched your ingredients, crossed the harmful or unnecessary ones off your list, and gone to the pharmacy to get the rest of your prescriptions filled. Now you just have to make sure that the pharmacist gives you the right drugs – which means reading the label, possibly in another language.

In Georgia, most drug information is written in Cyrillic, which meant I had to learn a third alphabet in order to complete this step. It’s a good thing I did, because one time I went to fill a prescription for stomach medication and a pharmacist gave me a box of female fertility hormones with a similar-looking name (it seems even the pharmacist couldn’t read the doctor’s writing).

If you’re going in for a medical procedure or treatment, go over everything with the doctor who will be performing the procedure before you start – if necessary, get a translator, and have the doctor walk you through what is going to happen, step by step. Medical errors happen even in developed countries with no language barrier, so while this is a habit I developed in the US, I apply it even more carefully and diligently in Georgia.

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Well, that’s it. I hope you found this helpful or interesting. Leave a comment if you have any advice to contribute!

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