Gone from Gldani, Bound for Bagebi

I’ve moved from one obscure, out-of-the-way Tbilisi neighborhood to another.

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TLG sent a car around at about 4:45 pm on Tuesday. The staff member was very friendly – she even helped me with my bags, while the driver sort of chilled out by the car – but I hadn’t met her before, so I felt a little awkward. I decided to try a conversational gambit or two. Eventually, I settled on the following:

“So… do you know my new host family?”

And that’s how I learned that I would be living with three Georgian women.

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As we wound our way through west Tbilisi, I began to lose track of where we were. Finally, I recognized a tree-lined mall where I had walked from Saburtalo to Vake with a friend a few weeks ago. This particular street leads pretty much straight up to Vake Park. I began to worry – Vake Park is pretty far out and we were already basically *past* Vake Park, but somehow I had managed to imagine myself living somewhere in like north-central Vake where I’d be 20 minutes away from the Metro and the beginning of Rustaveli Avenue by the Philarmonia.

We continued to drive – for several minutes – after passing Vake Park, into a part of the city that I didn’t even know existed. We went uphill, past unknown scenery and new landmarks, until I was sure we must not even be in Tbilisi anymore. When we finally arrived, I was worried again.

See, when I had found out I’d be going to Vake, I started getting my hopes up. When I found out I’d be living with three women, I was elated. Not that I have anything against men, I just happen to be more comfortable, in general, sharing a space with women. And so driving through Dighomi and Saburtalo, I was excited and looking forward to meeting my host family But when I found myself being taken up an unfamiliar road in an unfamiliar part of town far past anywhere I’d ever been, I became nervous all over again.

The TLG representative dropped me off at the house, told my new hostperson who I was, and then left. And suddenly, without more than a sixty second introduction, I was alone with my new host family.

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Moving into a new family situation is an intense experience. I had been prepared to meet my new host family back in September, and when I didn’t get one, disappointment and relief mixed in equal parts in my mind. This time, it was oddly parallel but opposite – my emotions are hard to explain, but it was just different. This move happened so fast, and I’d gotten used to Georgia as seen from the eyes of a young bachelor living with another, slightly-older-but-wiser-bachelor, and so I felt a lot of things and I didn’t really even have time to name all of those things or understand them or even really worry about them too much.

All I can say is that I was feeling somewhat defensive just before the move. Georgians are very welcoming, on the surface, but beyond the superficial social expectation of hospitality, Georgians vary a great deal with regards to how they look at new people living in their homes. Some Georgians treat their new guests as family – which means that they expect the new guests to basically be Georgian, and as such, to require no privacy, have no strange Western habits, and to be totally accustomed to strange Georgian habits. These Georgians will not be able to process statements such as “no, I don’t want to wear house-slippers” or “please could I take a shower before noon” and will basically insist on integrating the guest into the Georgian lifestyle. This, I believe, is the root of most culture shock – the shock of being totally subsumed by a new culture, new family, and new family obligations. So this knowledge probably formed the basis of most of my poorly-formed, vague concerns about having a host family.

Of less concern to me is another type of reaction to a guest, which is less familial and more commercial – basically, some Georgians look at a new TLG volunteer as an opportunity, resource, and status symbol. These are the families that place the emphasis on showing off their new volunteers, on getting them to tutor the children, on getting them to chip in financially to the family, and on setting up rules that resemble a contract or exchange rather than familial relations. I wasn’t so worried about this because these families seem to be relatively rare; however, several of the families that I’ve heard of that epitomize the opportunistic approach happened to be in Vake, so there was at least a small chance that I’d end up with this sort of situation.

I don’t think that I was being pessimistic – I did try to keep a positive attitude throughout the process – but I wanted to be prepared for either one of these sorts of host family approaches. I imagined myself fending off an army of “kai-bitchi-khar”-saying relatives trying to feed me things that I don’t like but am too polite to refuse, all the while having to explain all of my possessions and keep my room looking like a museum rather than a place where somebody actually lives. I imagined myself negotiating what the household rules would be and how many tutoring hours I’d put in per week and hoping that I wouldn’t have to actually pull out a contract in order to avoid being strong-armed into committing to more than I can handle. Basically I think that the numerous stories I’ve heard from fellow TLG volunteers scared the living daylights out of me more than I would have liked to admit.

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I’m doing this on purpose, you know – withholding details about the family, the home, and the neighborhood. This is how I felt all night Friday after I got that text, all day Saturday until someone started pouring vodka shots at a friend’s birthday party, all day Sunday after my wonderful brunch guests left the house, all day Monday when I wasn’t distracted by helping out a dear friend who had a problem that was way worse than any I’ve faced in Georgia, and all day Tuesday until I actually started to have a conversation with my new host. Except y’all could have skipped all this lead-up and gone straight to the end, whereas I had to actually live through several days of suspense and worry.

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Long story short: My new host family is awesome and the house is amazing.

My host person – let me stop right there because I haven’t quite settled on host mother or host sister or host aunt or host-something-entirely-different, like everyone else seems to have done. I’m 29, which is too old to really take on another maternal figure in my life. I don’t need someone to cry to or take my problems to, someone to do my laundry or cooking (or teach me these things), someone to make me clean my room and make my bed and wash my hands before dinner, someone to do all those other mom-type things that I’m sort of blanking on – and though I know that some people grow up and never really get past the child-who-needs-mommy phase, I’m not one of those people. And because of the circumstances of my upbringing, I’ve got a generalized sort of discomfort with the whole “mother” label (okay, it’s mainly because there were never any stepmother cards at the Hallmark store and I’ve got an obsession with factually accurate and linguistically precise texts) so I don’t know how I’ll feel about saying “host mother” and besides, I’m not even sure if this woman is actually physically old enough to even be my mother – she might be, but it’s hard for me to judge the age of Georgian people overall for some reason. I’ll probably get over this and end up going with “host mother” just by default and just for clarity’s sake, especially since she’s the one who runs the house and with whom I have the most direct relationship, since she speaks English.

Anyway, my “host mother” is a schoolteacher, an artist, a singer, a composer, and an all-around cool person. She seems to know what Western people are like and to be comfortable with things like the idea of me cooking. I think the most telling thing is that she’s said that I should think of her as my family and behave accordingly – so already she’s defining the relationship according to my cultural predispositions, which is a level of accommodation that I didn’t even know existed here. Last night she showed me her paintings and played some songs for me on the piano. I may not have mentioned it here, but I do so love the piano. I was very happy.

My “host grandmother” is also pretty cool. Again, she doesn’t really seem old enough to be my grandmother (not even a hint of grey hair, although I suppose there’s always hair dye) although she does have a grandson who is 20. She drinks wine and doesn’t seem to have even a hint of the fussiness that usually drives me crazy in older people.

Finally, there’s my “host sister” – I believe she’s actually my host mother’s cousin, although I’m not exactly sure since I also think that she’s younger than I am. She has apparently studied English but I haven’t heard her say more than a few words. She teaches “starter” students (equivalent to our grades K-4, I think) at my new school. I haven’t gotten much of a read on her yet other than the fact that she’s devilishly good at Backgammon.

Actually, that’s only “finally” for yesterday. Today I met a “host cousin” who is 20 and studies Business and Accounting at a university. We played several games, including chess, backgammon, gin rummy, durak, and “joker” – the latter two being (durak) a Russian game I picked up at Stuy, and (joker) a game that several Georgians have mentioned to me but I only just learned tonight. Anyway his English is good enough that we can teach each other card games, and he’s a good player overall, so we had a good time.

What can I say about the house? My room is smaller than in Gldani but it’s also much warmer, and has a desk, and it’s own private balcony (!) and so I’m quite happy with it. And of course no one will have to walk through it to use the bathroom. Speaking of bathrooms, ours has a shower with amazing pressure, water that can actually be adjusted to any temperature, and a shower curtain to keep the room from being soaked in its entirety by a person taking a shower! The kitchen is smallish – big enough for me to use but probably not big enough for two chefs to work together effectively. The living room is huge, warm, and beautiful, and has a piano. There’s also a main balcony that’s huge, has a gorgeous view of some area of the city that I haven’t identified quite yet, and has tons of comfy-looking furniture on it.

And my neighborhood, as the title says, is called “Bagebi.” It’s west of Vake and directly south of the Vazha-Pshavela Metro stop. There are buses that go to Chavchavadze Avenue and Rustaveli, and at least one marshutka that goes to Delisi. Walking to it from anywhere I might actually be late at night, except a friend’s house in west Saburtalo, is basically out of the question. However it has at least one decent market (a market that sells Jim Beam, for some reason, not that I’m complaining) so it’s not like I’ll have to run into town for every little thing.

Anyway… it’s WAY later than I wanted to be up today. I have to be at school tomorrow at 9, which means getting up at 7, which means I’m going to be dead tired all day tomorrow, but I’ll hopefully catch up on things like sleep and other personal maintenance this weekend.

Next time, on “Neal’s Adventures in the Outskirts of Tbilisi:”
– Neal eats enough ghomi to choke a horse!
– Neal delights viewers by performing his “writing in the Georgian alphabet trick!”
– Neal goes to school!
– And More!

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um…wut?:

[Video: The Simpsons, Saakashvili Spring]
I guess it bears mentioning that The Simpsons has been around since before the Soviet Union fell. Hilarious!

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2 Responses to Gone from Gldani, Bound for Bagebi

  1. Russ says:

    How fortunate you are! I was trying to visualize the home you described as I read along. It will be so wonderful if this host family turns into lifelong friends.

    I’m familiar with the neighborhood you’ll be teaching in and have walked past TSU many times. I can’t wait to hear more. Russ

  2. pasumonok says:

    God I am so exited for you!
    having had a host family myself, I would advice not to overestimate yours. People tend to behave a lot more nicely in the beginning of any relationship. That being said, I had the most wonderful host family and they never stopped being wodnerful, so I am being a hypiocrite πŸ™‚
    Am I that only friend who is in a walking distance now?
    You have some odd luck of getting into places that most Tbilisians never even visit:-)
    Well, at least you’ll have a lot fresher air, Bagebi is closer to Tskenti, Tskneti has lost of pine treess, etc…
    I propose we take a hike to Tskneti when it gets warmer. It is pretty.
    May I give another unasked advice? Be assertive on what you think is right conduct. You might want to play nice and put some discussions towards later, but once people learn that it is O.K. to wash your laundry or feed you insert whatever you hate here, it will be hard to change that. But please be super nice about it! Like very very nice.
    Good luck!!!!

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