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Charleston, SC, United States
"Fear is a stranger to the ways of love. Identify with fear, and you will be a stranger to yourself." -ACIM

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Culture is weird

So I’m through two weeks of school now and all is still as good as it can be. My 9th grade class is horrible. A full 50% of them don’t even know the alphabet. So, I decided to have a talk with my director and we decided to abandon the text book and just try to get them to learn something. I started with the question words and moved on to ‘If/Then’ clauses by Friday. If that works out, then we’ll see if I can move on from there or go farther back and start at “This is a book.”

Anyway, school was not the most interesting thing that happened this past week. On Saturday, my two older host brothers and one of their friends over lunch tell me that I’m to accompany them after lunch for a bride napping. I was hesitant at this proposal because that’s not exactly how I had planned on spending my Saturday afternoon. But, when in Rome… I was just hopping that I wouldn’t actually have to take part in this strange cultural tradition.

After lunch all four of us got in the car and headed for the next village over where I was told that the boy and girl were on their way. Much to my relief there were other cars from Muganlo there with us to help “greet” the new couple and help usher them back to their new home. Also this meant that the napping had already taken place and that we were just going to a welcoming party at the groom’s place. While we were waiting, it gave me plenty of time to ask all the questions I should have asked before agreeing to go on such a trip.

In the old days (I’m still not clear on when the old days were but I’m thinking it couldn’t have been more than 20 years ago) people would actually go to homes and kidnap girls and take them off for a few days and force them to marry some boy. This was generally prompted by the village elders and wasn’t very pleasant for the girl or her family. Now however the kidnapping is more ceremonial (most of the time). Basically a guy will see a girl he likes and then test the waters by talking to either her brothers or uncles. If her family is in agreement, then he and a brother or cousin will go and kidnap her one afternoon and take her away to another relative’s home for a few days in another town. The girl is given time to pack a bag sometimes or someone will bring her things later. (I’m not exactly clear on that part, but it’s not important, she gets her stuff somehow). The point is the girl is happy about it and goes and sits in the car herself; she’s not forced.

Anyway, this is where I entered the process. We’re all in these cars and when they come around the corner, we all start honking horns and flashing lights and get in line behind the bride and groom and follow them to his parents’ house. Everyone from the village comes out of their homes to wave and greet the new couple. Once we got there, the bride is greeted by her new family and the groom’s friends. It was only at this point that I realized that I actually knew the guy and the girl is one of my neighbors that I met once. She seemed fairly happy about the whole situation, so I felt certain that this had all been arranged before the actual kidnapping. We all had a big party with lots of food, wine, music and dancing; men and women at different tables on opposite ends of the courtyard of course. This is also where I discovered the significance of all his male friends being there. In the old days they would be there in case the girl’s family tried to come and take her back. I was glad to see that no such party arrived and we weren’t forced to defend what “we” had taken.

I had a chance during the meal to question the groom as to when the wedding would be and he said it won’t take place till her father returns from Moscow in three months. So this party was more or less an engagement party of sorts and the actual wedding won’t be until sometime this winter. Whether she returns to her house or stays with his family I’m not too sure of either yet. And whether the father is at all happy about this I also have no idea. My bet is, he’s aware and has no problem with it.

Anyway, the whole process is very strange to me because there are these happy bride napping occasions and there are still some forced bride napping incidents that take place. But, from what I’ve gathered those are fewer and fewer at least here in Muganlo. This is also one of the cultural ticks that worries me because to the people here it’s just everyday life. My host-brother told me, “Yeah, you see a girl you like, we’ll go get her for you.” I told him I’d take a pass on that one. Since these girls are pretty much locked up at home after age 15, how do these people even know who it is that they’re going to get? They just go purely on what she looks like and her family’s status. Family status is also important. A well off family would never let their daughter be taken by a family with an extremely lower status. But the fact that if someone wants to forcibly take a girl and cart her off for a few days while the families negotiate the marriage is just strange. And, worse it’s not frowned upon. My host-brother was serious and genuine in his offer to me. He even said he has taken part in more than a few including snagging a girl for my cousin that lives in Baku. “Yeah, I was driving the car!” Ahhh Muganlo.

But then on a sadder note, on Tuesday while I was off in another city at a PC meeting when during a class break one of my 11th grade students was bride napped by the brother of my host sister-in-law. This was not one of those happy ones either. Apparently, the negotiations that precede a happy napping did not go in his favor. He was told by the girl’s parents that he would have to wait till she graduated next year. But, even without his own parent’s permission he went ahead and forced this girl into his car and took her off. I don’t know the status beyond that but even his family is helping the police to try and locate the two of them.

The only other news worth reporting is that my two dogs ran away this past week. Nobody even noticed until I brought it to their attention. At that point my host-father and two of my host-brothers looked for them in the yard for about five minutes before deciding that yes in fact they had run away. Now in America if your dog runs away you’d show some kind of remorse or sorrow at their loss. Not here. My host-father said in a very calm dismissive voice, “Eh. They were old dogs. We’ll get new ones. Let’s go eat.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

Star Date: School Begins

Well the last week of waiting finally came to an end and school has begun. But before we get there let me catch you up on all the goings on in Muganlo. (By the way I’ve also seen my village spelled Mughanlo, but I’ll stick with the non British version without the H).

I had family in this past week which meant there were 13 people here instead of the normal 8. Two of them have gone back so we’re back down to 11 and I’m thinking that’s going to last for at least a month or so. My host dad was happy to have some people his own age to play with so needless to say the wine raneth over. I avoided a few days at home by making a trip to Tbilisi on Tuesday to get my residency card and then to Bolnisi on Wednesday to visit two other volunteers who live there for the day.
Bolnisi was nice and I wanted to slap one of the volunteers when she showed me her school with its hardwood floors, air-conditioning, 40 computers, actual desks and chairs and clean white walls. The other volunteer is a business volunteer and had some high speed Internet at his office that I used to check the baseball standings. We had a good day just walking around and looking at the town. They have a couple of nice parks there, some caf├ęs, stores and we all had a good laugh while playing on the swings. I couldn’t remember the last time I was actually on a swing set and it made me wonder how I survived elementary school because back then we would get those things as high as we could and then jump out. No way was I willing to try my luck again as an adult, but I had good fun.

I did talk to some people this week and found out that it may be worth my while to drop a little money and get better Internet access. There is a card here now that you can get and it is way faster than the 10 minute load time that you get with my family’s Internet. I’m thinking I’m going to go get it after the first of October. Those who have it have said it’s awesome and they are even able to Skype with it. Too bad I didn’t bring my web cam or else I could get on some video calls with some of you. But, if I do get this at least I can upload some videos and let you guys see what goes on over here.

Speaking of which, I did watch my first full pen to the table sheep slaughter this past Saturday. Wow. I’ll keep the descriptions to myself on that one. But, I may just have to video it and post it up because you really should see how this goes down. Sunday I relaxed and did some laundry (hand-washed), read some, and took a walk. Nothing too exciting.

Also I did make it all the way through Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. (So Patrick I hope you’re reading this) It was a good book; I only wish that I spoke some French so that portions of the dialogue would have made more sense. In fact I wish I’d had that high speed Internet because there is a lot of information in the book that would have made more since with a quick Google search. Lots of history, a little mystery and a great plot. I really enjoyed it.

The Start of School…
Day One: So school did begin on Monday. There was a lot of fanfare and not a lot of work accomplished. I got there a little before 9 and the opening ceremony started around 9:30. There was a speech from the director, some certificates handed out to top students from the previous year and the raising of the flag. I was introduced to the student body during one of the speeches and thankfully didn’t have to make a speech myself like I did in KZ.
After that all the students rushed the door and went to their classes. Why, I have no idea because there were no lessons that day just “homeroom” teachers deciding who had actually shown up and figuring out which students were going to be in which classes. This was helpful I guess to our vice-director who was still making out the class schedule for all the teachers. By the time I left on Monday she was through Wednesday and half of Thursday’s schedule.

Day Two: I observed 5 lessons and decided that I have not been assigned to a school but rather a prison with an education program. The students couldn’t care less about the lessons and teachers struggle to be heard much less actually teach. Students will just talk, curse at one another, beat on each other, get up and walk around or just simply stare off into space while waiting on their next opportunity to disrupt the lesson. During one of the 7th grade classes these two boys never shut up. One of them received a slap across the head on two separate occasions from the teacher for his efforts. It didn’t phase him any. So, towards the end I just stopped the “lesson” (since not a single thing had been accomplished) and said I would pay the two boys $10 each if together they could write on the board 10 words in English. They came up with three. Dog, boy and gel. Gel was supposed to be girl, but I gave them credit. They also had bok, which I guessed was book, but decided not to try and explain it. This wasn’t even the worst group, but depressing none the less. I did watch two 5th grade groups and have pretty much decided that there is where I’ll start since they can at least be entertained and might be able to learn something.
Note: During only one of my five classes did a piece of the ceiling fall and crash to the floor. It wasn’t even a big piece, and I felt better knowing that only 20% of the time that might happen.
My thoughts after the first day of lessons was: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. These kids are forced to sit in the middle of the lake but they would assume die of thirst rather than take a drop.

Day Three: I only observed three classes on Wednesday because the rest were repeats from the day before and I’d seen enough of them to know which groups are going to be worth the effort and which are not. I did observe both the 9th grade groups and one from the 8th grade. The 8th grade group was ok, but only 4 of the 15 total students seemed at all interested in the lesson and their classroom has some major potential for ceiling failure and mold issues. They were also only able to form one correct sentence the whole time and that was, “I drown kittens.” I’m not sure they understood it, but I had to respond with, “That is correct.” (Maybe some of them do drown kittens, who knows?)
The two 9th grade groups were better than expected, but there are still 4 or 5 students in each of those groups who are just a total disruption. In the second group two boys received slaps across the head for the efforts. Again to no effect because they went right back to doing nothing and just talking across the room. I’m just afraid that the material for the 9th grade is just way to over their heads. The first page of their book is asking them to explain compulsory education and the differences between primary and secondary education. Some of them can’t say their names. There are a few in each group that do seem interested though and both the 9th grade groups speak some Russian, so it was easier to explain things to them.

I’d pretty much decided by the end of Wednesday which groups I’m going to work with. I have to teach 15-17 classes a week, so I need to fill that many hours. I figure all three of the 5th grade groups are worth it because they are just starting and can be entertained, somewhat controlled and there isn’t any “catch-up” work to do. That’s 9 hours during the week. Then I figure both the 9th grade groups are a good challenge despite the major discipline issues because there are students in both of those groups that actually want to learn. Maybe only 25% of them want to learn, but hey better than the 7th grade monsters. So that’s 8 hours with the 9th grade for 17 total hours. My math is better than theirs since on Wednesday I saw 7+8=11 carved into the back of one of the chairs in front of me. Really?
So with those 17 hours and my 2 English classes I’m running for the community each week I should have a full plate. Then there are the Azeri and Georgian lessons I have to attend each week starting in October.

Day Four: Not much more to report. I’ve seen it, now I have to figure out how to work with it. I made out may schedule for this year and I made a change from yesterday and will drop one of the 9th grade groups and teach and 8th grade group instead. My 5th graders are funny and they should be more than entertaining throughout the year. For example today they came up with the word chable; that being a combination of chair and table. It’s all repetition with them right now. This is a chair. This is a table. This is a desk. This is a window. This is a door. Try repeating those five sentences over and over for 45 minutes. It gets old and you’re shocked when you get to the last student and he still can’t get it. I felt like yelling “You just heard it from 20 other people and me for the past half hour! How can you not get the first one?” But, my patience is still with me at this point. Only difficulty from today was the fact that it was only about 55 degrees here today and the absence of windows in more than a few areas made it rather chilly and damp in the school.

Day Five: TGIF! I hate that phrase, but it seems appropriate for this first week of what seemed like a crash course in the education system here. Today I only went to one 9th grade class and one 5th grade class and helped out with the 5th graders and their introduction to the letters A-H. Their book had the 1 little 2 little 3 little Indians song in there and I can tell you it’s twice as entertaining in their accent. I got them through 1-10 but when I did the counting backwards 10-1 it was a little much. We’ll start from there on Monday.

Well that’s it. That was my first week of school in Muganlo. I have a huge challenge in front of me, but if I can keep my sanity, then I might just make it through and I might just be able to teach them something.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A debate worth writing about

So the other night I was over at the men’s hangout where every night a few village elders, including my host-dad, get together drink wine and tea and talk about whatever. I normally don’t go since most of the time they speak Azeri and I end up just sitting there. But, when I do go they sometimes include me by speaking Russian and asking me a bunch of questions like how much a BMW costs in America and whether or not I like Georgia. This gets old after a while and I find a reason to excuse myself and go home.

But the other night for some reason they decided to have an actual debate with me about the state of the world and America’s involvement in that state. I was with three old Soviets and one guy who’s about 30. Two of the older men and the younger guy are Muslim; the other older guy is Orthodox Christian but not practicing. We’d probably call him Agnostic in the States. And then you have me a Christian which they quickly established on our first meeting a few weeks ago. These aren’t your Arab Muslims these are Muslims who lived under Soviet rule and aren’t that interested in practicing so much as believing. You kind of need to know this information so you can understand where these guys are coming from.

Now, you’ll have to bear with me here because I actually don’t remember how it all got started, but I do remember at one point one of them asking me why we ‘Americans’ stole all the land from the Indians in our drive to the west. I told him I wasn’t really up on the policies of Andrew Jackson, but that it was indeed something we all weren’t that proud of, it just happened through the course of our expansion as a nation. Because my Russian is good but not the best, I simply closed my argument with, “It’s all about the money, only money.” That’s where it all really got started and I opened a door to an hour long debate.

“So that’s why you guys are in Iraq right?” one of them asked me immediately.
You all know my stance on the war and how much I would agree with that statement, so I responded “Well yeah. We’re not fighting terrorism; we’re fighting for control of oil supplies.”
This drew silence from the crowed since I guess they expected me to defend the policies of America to them.
“So that’s Democracy then?” another old Soviet asked me.
“No. That’s Capitalism.” I responded.
Again silence. I was having some fun with this because they did not expect me to agree with their views so quickly. “Look, America is run by corporations and a few small groups of people that have enough money to influence the government. The people of America do the best they can to keep their heads above water. Most of them are hard working and good people, it’s not the people’s fault that the government it faulty. I think you could all agree with that right? You all believed in your system before it collapsed and you didn’t blame the people, you blamed the leaders who mismanaged the system right?” I tried to make some comparison here between America’s Capitalistic drive and a subject I knew would strike a cord with them.
“No!” the agnostic Soviet said with a pound of his fist on the table. “Socialism works and we all had jobs, we all had homes, we all had a good life. If you weren’t working then, a man would come to your home and ask you why. He would then find you work. Everyone was busy and everyone helped out their neighbors. Do you in America help your neighbors if they are in need? Do you stop each other on the street and ask about your days? No. Socialism is a system that works.”
“Socialism sure.” I responded, “But what about Communism? Was that not the mismanagement of your Socialist system and way of life?”

I don’t think he ever really answered my question but he did go on to tell a good story about he and one of Stalin’s brothers growing up together. It really was a good story and believable since Stalin is from a city only a few hours away from here and none of the other men seemed to contradict him. This went on for some time with other side stories about the ‘glory days’ of the old system. At one point one of them demonstrated the draw backs of the American ‘capitalistic’ loan to Georgia because the president here just used the money to pay the army and police instead of giving any of it to the people and social programs. I don’t know enough about that to make an argument, so I simply told him that was the president’s business and ‘we’ only gave what we could because it was asked of us.

A long pause for a long toast and more wine to be brought. I won’t bore you with the details of the next debate we entered into; I’ll simply list its conclusions:
One, there will never be world peace because there is no money in peace. “Pure” Capitalists will never allow it to happen and the common interests of people around the world will never be able to be agreed upon.
Two, there are only two ways to achieve world peace. The first is through a one world Socialist government. (I didn’t agree with this point, based on the previous conclusion that the world population’s interest would never match up, but let it go as a theoretical argument.) The second way is if there was one religion in the world. We all had a good laugh at this since between the five of us there were three very different religions represented. Thankfully the religious debate did not continue very far and we all agreed that talking about it would get us nowhere.

After that there were only a few points of interest and I won’t go into them here. Overall though it was a slightly entertaining evening and I was actually quite impressed with my Russian. I need to work on a little vocabulary though because at times I had to over simplify my arguments to get my point across.
Any American that has spent some time with some former Soviets who truly believed in their system has had a debate similar to this one and I’m sure this won’t be my last. I just enjoy them because it’s different than the normal BMW pricing and how much do tomatoes cost in America conversations.

Yep that’s what I’m up to over here in my free time. Yapping away with a bunch of old guys passing the time waiting for school to start.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Wine and Whining

Ok there really isn’t that much whining that’s going to take place, but I thought it was a catchy title. Camp is over and I figured I’d type up a post about what I learned and how everything went. Overall I thought the camp went well. I had a lot of activities planed and I’m glad I over planed because some of them were a failure. Not because the activity was bad but because my student’s English was worse than I expected.

Let me set a little stage for you here first before I go into the details. There are three English teachers at my school that I’ll be working with. The one that has the most hours is the main teacher followed by an Azeri lady who teaches the students that speak no Georgian and a third who only teaches four classes a week but teaches in the next town over as well. The students are mainly taught by the first teacher who, at least in my interactions with her, seems less than interested in teaching and knows little to no English. And, her students were the ones that showed up to my camp. The other two teachers were there to help translate but where was the main teacher? When we called her on the second morning she said she didn’t know the camp was taking place. If that were the case then neither of the other teachers would have been there either since all four of us were together when I explained when the camp would take place, where and what we would be doing. She did make an appearance on the last day but was less than helpful.

Never mind that right now, I’m sure there will be more blogs to come about her and her English teaching. My problem was that I had a room of about 30 kinds (a better turnout than I expected) from the ages of 12 to 15 who didn’t know how to construct the sentence ‘My name is ___, his/her name is ___.’ Needless to say grammar bingo was out of the question. I ended up spending the first two days feeding them sentences to learn and trying to pull some form of creativity out of them. I did get more than a few games to work but explanations took forever and anything that required them to actually read or write something was out of the question. Dialogs didn’t work and it seemed like I spent more time explaining simple grammar points and forcing vocabulary on them than anything. I’m not kidding either. The concept of him vs. her and he vs. she or his vs. hers was mind blowing to them. Now I’m no language master by any means, but if I’d been studying anywhere from 4 to 7 years, I think I would have gotten at least that much down. That doesn’t matter right now though. I’ll start working on those concepts with them once we get to actual classes. What matters is the kids had fun, they got to know me a little bit and they somewhat seemed enthusiastic about being there. Again, that could change once we get to textbook learning.

Classroom management was my other major obstacle with them. The concept of be quiet for two seconds so I can hear myself give this explanation was also a little too much for them. You could get one half of the room quiet and then the other half would start up and the other teachers were of no help there because they’re used to it. What I’m really wondering about is which level of students I should choose to work with. Will it be worth my time to work with the older kids, deal with their noise and lack of motivation or should I just start with the little kids and try to get them off to a good start rather than play catch-up with the middle aged kids? I’ll have a week or two to observe once classes get started and I’ll have to make my choice then. I think I’ll also look for a hard spot on the wall in one of the hallways too so I’ll have a good place to bang my head on.

Another note here: While teaching in my camp I found that Georgian is the language least likely to be used. More students understand Russian (good for me) than do Georgian. Azeri was the main language that the Azeri teacher used to translate my instructions and the only one used by the students. If and when that failed the Georgian teacher would translate into Russian for them. I never heard Georgian and that didn’t dawn on me till the camp was over. I don’t have much to say about that other than making the observation. Good thing I speak Russian and not a good thing that I don’t know any Azeri (thanks to some really poor language training on the Azeri side of things). At least the teachers all know Russian and I can communicate with them. A lot of volunteers are struggling to be understood at their sites; at least I know a functional language and can get my point across in any work related situation. Note to self: find Azeri tutor soon.

Moving on… Tuesday was interesting. My host-father and brother came home from work in quite the merry mood. Apparently it was one of his nephew’s birthdays in Baku. Why would that be a cause to celebrate I have no idea, but family is very important here so celebrate we did. We had dinner out in the courtyard and two pitchers of wine to go with it. Oh, and if you guessed that we had boiled lamb for dinner you would be correct. After dinner we moved in to the family room and two more pitchers of wine appeared and some more bread and lamb because you have to keep eating or else you’ll be messed up from all the sweet wine. Needless to say I was in no mood to get out of bed on Wednesday morning, not because of a hangover but because I didn’t go to bed till well after midnight and wanted to keep sleeping. Neither my alarm clock nor my bladder were in agreement, so I got up anyway. Another drawback to the outdoor toilet came to mind that morning too. I have to get dressed, go across a balcony, down some stairs, down a path, across a garden and then around a turn just to get to the thing. And good morning Muganlo, that smell is enough to shock you awake every time.

The next day was apparently wine turning day. We all noticed a few skin pieces called “fish” in our white wine on Tuesday so according to my host-father the barrels needed to be turned. I thought he meant turned like rotated, but apparently it just means you take it out of one barrel and move it to several smaller ones thus removing the “fish” by leaving them at the bottom of the bigger barrel. You then clean out the big barrel and have it ready for this year’s harvest. Kind of cool actually. I think harvest is in October and I’m hoping to go back to Tokhliauri to help my host-family there one weekend. The family here only has grapes at home so there is no big ‘harvest’ so to speak. The family in Tokhliauri has a huge vineyard and one more hand couldn’t hurt. Plus my host-mom there was really excited for me to see her vineyard and get to witness the harvest.

I did have a funny incident happen the other day. There are two huge dogs here, one of which I’ve made friends with. The other one is old and mean as hell, so I just try to avoid him. So, I was on my trek to the toilet and he came up to me ready to play and be petted and I obliged him with a few scratches on the head and rubbing his belly with my foot. He’s all jumping around fired up ready to play when I opened the gate to the garden where the other dog was. He immediately runs over and jumps on that dog ready to play which got him a quick bite on the leg. No matter, he was still ready to go but noticed that I no longer had any interest in him so he starts chasing this chicken around the garden. I always find it funny watching chickens run and watching this dog mere inches behind it was hilarious. My host-mom hearing the commotion poked her head out a window and starts yelling at the dog who could care less so she throws a shoe at it as it passes the window on its third lap around the garden. Luckily for the chicken that was enough to snap him out of the chase because I think the chicken was running out of energy. Yep, that’s my entertainment here. Guess you probably had to be there.

On to the book review. The Unbelievable Lightness of Being was a better movie than book and I rarely say that. There was too much of the author interjecting himself into the story and breaking from any decent line of narration to put in his own philosophy and classify people into categories. It was a bunch of, ‘there are four types of people in the world… there are three kinds of lovers… there are two types of men…’ It got old quick.
The end was terrible too. You knew how the story ended 100 pages before the book ended. The last was just a bunch of self created loose ends that only got knotted rather than tied up. I’m probably being too harsh because I don’t like love stories too much, but there was one piece that I did like:
“Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him or her demand-free and asking for nothing but their company.”
I thought that was nice.

I’m on to the next book but I realized that it’s time for my annual read of The Sun Also Rises and one of you out there has my copy of it. Give it back! I need my book! So, luckily/unluckily I brought an audio copy of it that I downloaded before I left. I was looking forward to it until I actually heard it. When read by William Hurt it sounds like a bunch of sentences that don’t even go together. I listened to about the first 20 minutes or so then wanted to either shoot him or myself. Why do people feel the need to read Hemingway like they’ve got a glass of Scotch in their hand putting emphasis on all the wrong parts of the sentence and slurring their words during dialogs? Again, I may be being too harsh because it is my favorite book and I guess it is his interpretation of how the book should be read. I bet he doesn’t even like that book and just read it to collect a paycheck.

Ok ok, I guess I should cut this off. It looks like I’ve just been rambling for three pages now.
All is well considering and thanks to those of you that sent e-mails this week. It’s nice to get a laugh from time to time and hear what’s going on with you guys. I miss y’all and hope all of you (all y’all) are well.