First few days

There’s been too much going on to really accurately convey it all in the limited amount of time I have.  It’s almost 2am here, and I need to be at breakfast by 9am.  I’m losing sleep to record my trip, since the first few days are so important.

I guess I’ll try to go in order.

I arrived at 3:05 am Tuesday morning, local time.  We had to go through passport control ourselves and pick up our own checked baggage before meeting a TLG rep.  We all sort of thought they might be waiting at the gate, but when they were not, we didn’t panic. We just got our bags and went out to meet them.

One nice thing that happened was that every teacher waited until the last person got their last bag.  I thought it was nice how well we stuck together on that one.

We went out to meet the TLG reps.  A woman named Mariam met us at a little TLG booth set up outside the security area.  I was the first to get to her, and when she handed me my nametag I said “gmadlobt” (“thank you”) and her eyes went a little wide and she smiled and said “oh!”  Way to go me, making a good first impression.  Unless I said it horribly wrong, and said something horribly inappropriate instead, and she was trying to avoid laughing at me.

To the hotel.  It smelled like stale cigarette smoke.  But I’ve stayed in worse hotels – for instance, Innisbrook, in Florida, where the stale cigarette smoke has fermented in the Florida sun for thirty years and grown children who mounted a full-scale invasion of my upper respiratory system.  But that’s neither here nor there.  We checked in, got massive amounts of free bottled water, and went to sleep.  Or did we?  I stayed up until about dawn, walking around and taking advantage of the free wifi in the hotel.

The rooms were nice.  The AC worked decently.  I should have taken pictures but it didn’t occur to me.

The rest of Tuesday is a bit of a blur.  I slept a little, we ate some Georgian food, we had an orientation meeting at 4pm, followed by a medical checkup for ten of us who had not done ours back home.  My veins are notoriously difficult to find and get blood from, and the phlebotomist had to try three locations to get it done – the final being my wrist, right at the base of my palm.  It was pretty painful.  I think I scared the rest of the group a little, but I assured them that this was my bad and not the fault of the Georgian medical system.

I slept through dinner.  When I woke up, it was late, and people were hanging out.  I took the opportunity to meet some people.  I taught Chinese Poker to a group of six or seven, and they enjoyed it a great deal.  I called home again Wednesday morning, and then went to sleep.  For about two or three hours.

Then I woke up and went to breakfast, where a group invited me to go into downtown Tbilisi with them.  We somehow ended up going to the old city instead.  The cab driver did not speak any English and also seemed to have a problem reading our map.  Anyway, we ended up at a church with great views of the city.  From there we saw the Presidential Palace, which we decided to go to.  We were not allowed within 30 feet of it.  We took a detour to another church, which was very big, and at the top of the Old City, so that we could see all of Tbilisi from the courtyard.  That was pretty damned cool.

We got some soda and snacks from a bodega, then some khatchapuri from a tiny local bakery.  Then we headed to a garden cafe overlooking the river.  We drank lemonade that was actually cream soda.

Mainly, this excursion taught me that the language barrier really isn’t so bad, from this end.  Largely we can point to things and hold up numbers of fingers (although I have already memorized the Georgian numbers) and guesture in various ways to communicate what we want.  A few names and key words go a long way.  And of course the all-important “thank you” and “thank you very much” (gmadlobt/didi gmadloba) are absolutely clutch.

Back to the hotel, then more orientation, then naptime, then dinner.  At dinner I met a fellow Crossfit junky and we talked about diet and running shoes and the way we felt that Crossfit had prepared us for any challenge or level of discomfort.  Others may have thought we were crazy.  After dinner I found some friends and we chatted, then decided to go across the road for some beer.  There was a little Turkish restaurant where I bought Efes – a Turkish beer I grew to like while living in a Turkish neighborhood in Queens – and the others bought Georgian beers.  They also had some baklava, which was okay, but seemed to contain what tasted like a great deal of sesame.  It didn’t quite match up to Sunnyside baklava, anyway.  By the way, I can count to ten, ask for bread, and say “thank you” and “good morning” in Turkish, none of which came in handy.

Thursday was the meeting at the Ministry of Education, followed by the trip to Kutaisi.  Everything went really slowly, so I grabbed lunch at the Turkish spot.  I had shawarma on puri.  It was absolutely delicious – probably the best shawarma I’ve ever eaten.  The tahini was far and away better than any I’ve gotten in America.  Now, if that’s what I got from a random hole-in-the-wall store, I absolutely can’t wait to go crazy on Turkish food while I’m in this region.

Overall, I’d have to say that aside from the khatchapuri, I’m not really all that into Georgian food, so far.  I mean, it’s all good – some of it is quite good – but I guess it’s just not that exciting.  I had been led to expect that it would be highly different than what I’m used to, but the truth is, it’s fundamentally similar to what I eat every day.  It has all the staples – bread, cheese, greasy ground beef or lamb, variations on chicken soup and chicken and rice – and other than khatchapuri there really aren’t any new tastes that have caught my attention.  To be fair, though, I’ve mostly eaten hotel food, and in the states, hotel food is a horrible travesty of American cuisine, so I’m withholding judgment until I’ve tried the real home-cooked stuff.  The daily home cooking is what I’m most excited about because in the States, that’s the special treat for me.  On the other hand, I’m totally excited about finding more Turkish food here and I hope there’s at least one good Turkish spot near my host family’s home.

So after our guerilla Turkish lunch we all got back on the bus and headed off to Kutaisi.  We stopped for an official lunch at a restaurant overlooking a river.  The food was pretty good, but there wasn’t quite enough of it for me, even after my shawarma sandwich.  And that’s when my first stress since I got here started to set in.

See, I was okay meeting five new people in Munich.  I was okay meeting almost forty new people over the next few days, and spending quality time with a few specific groups.  But by the time it got up to 92 people – and we had to take a long bus trip, spend a lot of time waiting, etc – it just got to be too much.  I have actually started to burn out on meeting new people.  I’ve gotten tired of taking buses around Georgia.  And I’ve started to get annoyed at having to dodge cigarette smoke.

And so at lunch, there was just too much going on for me.  I started to feel like I feel when I’m in New York – overwhelmed, crowded, and overstimulated by sights, smells, and other goings-on.

And ultimately – although I had kind of a sucky day – I’m pretty happy about how this turned out.  I’m not experiencing culture shock at all.  I came to Georgia partly to get away from a way of life that was making me profoundly unhappy, and aside from the other TLG members, my strategy is working.  And the TLG people are great people, don’t get me wrong.  It’s just too much at once for me.  And once we disperse to our own towns and villages, I will be completely free of the kind of overstimulation that has been eating away at me for most of my life.

So anyway, I handled the stress, managed not to really alienate anyone, and made it to Kutaisi, where the facility is so nice and modern and clean that I was immediately put at ease.  I apologized to the one person that I kind of snapped at, and he was understanding.  I ate dinner, hand washed my clothes in a sink, used a squat toilet for the first time ever, and then started in on blogging, with the help of some Russian Standard I picked up at the Goodwill.  And that’s my week in a nutshell.

Next post, I want to say more about culture shock – what it is, who around me might have it already, and why I think I might not be having it.  But for now, the week-long battle with jet lag continues, and I have to try to sleep.  And so I will leave you with the following.

This is what was going on in my mind today:


[video: 90 Minutes performing Mother Mother by Tracy Bonham]

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