Ok, this is just a quick attempt at my first blog!!!
Now in December, I’m getting the hang of blogging, so I wanted to edit this first post and to add on the notes I wrote back in September…..hope you like them:)
Dipthongs and Bodishit
Well, much to my horror I have just discovered that both my computer and my USB storage have decided to wipe absolutely every document I had!!! This includes my medical school notes, information and documents for teaching in Georgia, all my photos, and just about every other important document that I had painstakingly saved over the past year or more! So I guess, I should also make a point of emailing everything to myself as well as to a trusted friend from now on!!!! I suspect this may have something to do with the thunderstorm and hailstones we had last night, but being of a non technical mind, it may also just be coincidence. The suspicious part of me is inclined to believe that it has something to do with my dad (who, at my request because I was busy washing up, unplugged my computer as I was worried about the lightning hitting the house and blowing the computer up as happened to our tv before) or my stepsister messing about with the computer, and the more realistic part of me wonders whether it may partly be due to my own stupid fault as I dropped the USB drive earlier today. But, it should have taken a lot more than that to lose everything, and it seems to be working fine now…..very, very strange!
Anyhow, where should I now begin? Well, I have incredibly itchy feet and am on tenter hooks waiting to find out when I will be flying from Latvia to the Democratic Republic of Georgia. I am supposed to receive a ticket for my flight by email any time now, and I have a window of 27th October 2010 and 2nd November 2010 for my flight, which will be booked by the Government in Georgia. Today is already 25th October, and I feel like I have a bit of an insight into how some of my friends are feeling right now as they all seem to be pregnant and overdue (I was originally supposed to leave around 15th October but my CRB from the UK got held up by Thanksgiving in Canada). Yet whilst they are eating curry, and trying all sorts of weird and wonderful activities to bring on their labour, all I can do is sit by the computer and wait for that email! No amount of bouncing on a ball, or illicit amounts of intercourse are going to do anything to speed up my departure! Then it will be all go as I hastily pack and get myself organised for my adventures. On the plus side, I know my flight will be from Palanga in Lithuania since it is the closest airport to me, and since it is small with only two flights a day (one to Copenhagen and one to Riga), I know my flight will be in the morning around 8am, and my flight from Riga to Tbilisi in Georgia will be around midnight, with an arrival time in Georgia of 04.25am! Fortunately we live about 30minutes away from the airport, so I should be able to get a lift without too much of a logistical nightmare.
Rather like my overdue friends who are feeling weary and frustrated, I feel as if I am overstaying my welcome now as I have been staying with my dad since the end of September and the strain of keeping me is starting to show. One of the incredibly frustrating things for me is that technically I should be financially ok right now, but as is typical of the UK these days, it seems that everyone owes me money, but I am having to chase them up, costing me more money in the process. I’m owed money from Job Seekers Allowance for the period I gave my notice to leaving the country (first and hopefully the last time I will ever make a claim!), money from some film work I did back in July, money from the rental deposit on my house, a refund from the post office, the return of my locker deposit from the medical school, money from overpaid tax, and so forth. All little bits, but they add up to a significant sum that would completely change the quality of my life right now. I feel as if I’m like poor old Charlie from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and am secretly counting down the days to my birthday when I hope I will get some money into my account and can treat myself to a bar of chocolate! Its about 70centimes for a bar (about 70p), but since I have nothing at the moment, its like aiming for the top of Everest, and so many other important things to pay for in the meantime, including a drugs test to allow me to work in Georgia. I’m also not sure how my pay is going to work out in Georgia, as we are supposed to get our first pay at the end of the following month (end of November if I start at the end of October), however, we get a break for Christmas between 20th December and 20th January and only get paid three weeks of this holiday, but with Christmas being around the same time as our pay date, and being on vacation for most of January, I wonder whether it will be delayed? I don’t have any shoes or proper clothes at the moment, so that will need funding pretty urgently, especially as I only have one pair of trousers and two pairs of shorts!
We don’t get a wage as such, more of a stipend, but its more than the average Georgian teacher will get. Plus we have flights paid for, basic health insurance, and we will be living with and mostly being fed by our host families, so the 500Lari/$300/£100ish a month stipend should go quite a long way. Its an amazing opportunity, and would certainly cost me a lot more than this if I wanted to travel around Georgia for myself, but it won’t go so far for my long term plan and I have to really work hard on making ends meet for the next few years, since I am literally starting from scratch with nothing but my suitcase and two cats and a dog that I will sadly be leaving in Latvia whilst I’m away.
The long term plan is a new one, still being formulated and worked on, but if all goes well in Georgia, then this massive change of direction could work out fulfilling and also offer me the stability I am currently longing for. Having worked in hospitals for all my working life, I’ve decided that its time to leave the NHS and the long, back breaking shifts and continuous studies and exams. That, and I’m not getting any younger and my priorities are changing with every year. I know that teaching is going to be just as stressful and with as many hard times as medicine, but I’m ready for a new adventure, and in some ways I feel as if I’m going back to my origins, with so many teachers in the family, and wanting to be a teacher since I was at primary school. Plus, it will be nice to have a little more structure to my time, knowing that I will be in school Monday to Friday, with weekends off and set holidays. I don’t think I ever had a weekend off, or a Christmas or Bank Holiday for that matter!
So, my plan is to spend my time teaching as much as I can over the next year, getting my geography knowledge and skills up to scratch, and working with young people and teachers. In July and August I plan to cycle around the Baltic Sea. I just need a bike, a map and some determination. Starting from the bottom of my dad’s garden in Latvia, I’m hoping I can cycle mostly on the sand, but roads when necessary. Up to Liepaja where my stepmum lives, then on to Riga and into Estonia visiting islands on the way and going through Talinn. Next will be Russia and hopefully through St Petersburg, then crossing into Finland visiting islands and Helsinki. From Finland, I’ll cycle south and into Sweden passing through cities on the Baltic coast including Stockholm. If I can work it out, then I’m hoping a Latvian friend will be able to help me get a lift on a freight ship for free between Sweden and Denmark, possibly to Copenhagen. Or maybe to Germany. There are lots of islands in this area that all look fascinating, so I need to figure out a nice route here. From Germany I will next head on to Poland, and into Russia, then into Lithuania, visiting friends in Palanga, and finally back into Latvia, to end up back at my dad’s house. I’m hoping that two months will be more than sufficient, since I’m not planning on killing myself cycling, nor am I particularly fit. I did hear of someone who did something similar but on main roads and the oher way around, and did it in two weeks, but didn’t have time to really stop en route. I’ve placed an advert with the Royal Geographical Society in London in the hopes that some other crazy person like myself might fancy the bike trip, so will have to wait and see now, be nice to have some company on the way. I should be a bit more accustomed to exploration and adventure after my time in Georgia and learning Georgian, and if friends can make it over then we should also be able to explore the neighbouring countries of Albania and Azerbijan over the Christmas break, and if funds allow then also Turkey and Iran.
This should all give me sufficient time to grow in confidence and regain the zest that medical school has stolen from me. Then its another new adventure from September 2011, when I hope to gain employment in the UK as a Classroom Assistant. I’d love to move to London really, but financially its going to be too tricky in reality. So, I’m planning to move to Todmorden, the birth place of my grandfather who sadly lost his battle with cancer last year. His family were in Todmorden (or Tod as known by locals) from day dot, and its great that one of my best friends now lives there and works locally as a physiotherapist. The joke is that she is a shit hot physiotherapist because she spent so much of her time patching up my injuries when three of us shared a house in the Lake District! Prior to my knee surgeries I was constantly spraining ankles, and we were also keen runners, mountaineers and kickboxers so there was never a shortage of injuries! Our other house mate is now a nurse in a busy intensive care unit and is married to a tree surgeon, who also provides endless injuries that require fixing!
Once in Todmorden, I’m hoping that I can initially rent somewhere whilst I work as a classroom assistant, and then ideally from November 2011, I can work towards my PGCE with the Open University with a view to training as a Secondary school geography teacher. This should offer a good location to have a life away from my students without bumping into them too much, but also enough places to apply for placements during study and positions once qualified. Plus I should have more chance of being able to afford rent and buying a place at some point in the future, and then having a base to share with my pets once they return from Latvia! I have my eye on two really nice cotton mills (where my ancestors worked) which have now been converted into apartments, and my dream is to be able to buy one of those by the water, or perhaps something with a bit of an outdoor space, but a garden is tricky in the general style of buildings there, but an apartment would be amazing.
Then, I hope to continue my love of the outdoors by leading expeditions with the BSES (British Schools Expedition Society), a charitable trust founded by one of Shackleton’s crew to enable young people of school age to participate in leadership activities and personal development. It’s a brilliant idea, and I only wish that some of the medical staff could be taken on such an expedition as it would certainly sort out a lot of melancholy attitudes and office mentality that so many of them exhibit. It always seemed a bit farcical to me that the staff who were teaching the students about communication with patients had never actually worked with patients or within the NHS, but instead spent all their life working in academia, in little offices, mostly on their own (and needless to say, had some of the worst communication skills that I have ever come across!). Yet, they would patronise and ignore students on the course (who were self funded since graduates are not entitled to financial help) and get defensive when asked questions about real life situations. Ironic given that the medical students all had to spend time in healthcare in order to win a place at medical school, some had even trained as Paramedics, some as Nurses, some as Emergency Care Assistants in large accident and emergency departments, and in my view, were far more qualified than the university staff who wouldn’t survive 5 minutes in a hospital environment!!! They probably get paid more than most health professionals too, quite shocking really. I’m all for learning and development of skills, but the phrase ‘teaching your grandmother to suck eggs’ seems to apply perfectly here!
Anyway, that’s my little rant over, on to the new. I’m dreaming about leading expeditions for the BSES, something that the medical school did not approve of me doing in my holidays, but I am hoping that it will not be frowned upon by teacher training establishments or future employers. There are so many amazing projects to get involved with, from the Amazon, to the Himalayas, Namibia, Arctic, to Oman. I hope that if I can remain fit enough, then I can do one expedition per year, probably in July and August, and also encourage my students to join me. If I can do that in my holidays and can attend the Royal Geographical Society lectures whenever time and funds allow, then that would really be the icing on the cake.
Ok, one last rant! I was constantly in trouble at medical school for attending evening lectures at the RGS as it was not considered appropriate (even though my dream was to work as a medic on wildlife film productions and wilderness expeditions!), but hopefully it will be more acceptable in my new role. The RGS has to be one of the most inspirational places in the entire world, and I would no doubt live there given half a chance! Where else can you hang out at ‘The Explorers Bar’ and have conversations and a pint with people like Michael Palin, Ben Fogle, Paul Rose, Stephen Fry, and George McGavin! And the Explore weekend in November is one not to be missed!! There is nothing more rejuvenating than a weekend in an historical building, full of explorers and people recently returned from rowing across oceans, or planning their next expedition, or film crews or dive safety people talking about their professions, giving career advice, or helping you plan your own adventures! On every wall is a photograph or portrait or map from one of the famous explorers, and you can use the library to look through rarely seen maps and charts, and all sorts of other quirky artefacts. The staff are equally amazing and enthused and always ready to help with planning for an expedition, or helping to fire up your students. I’ve met so many teachers at the evening lectures, with their students in tow, and it suddenly seems to put geography, the environment, and science into a real world context, that it all suddenly seems to make sense. I just love the fact that suddenly you meet like minded people, to whom nothing is impossible, or completely crazy.
I remember one year, listening to young chap, whose name now escapes me. In short, he drove to Timbuktu in a car fuelled only by chocolate! Another person was currently in the midst of filming a tv series which involved travelling in a hot air balloon, and I can probably list at least three people I know that have rowed across an ocean in a tiny shell of a boat, having never rowed before or having left indoor jobs (Sally Kettle, Sarah Outen, Ros Savage, Ben Fogle)! The point I am making is that no idea is too crazy for the RGS, and its nice to be amongst pioneers. I should probably make a special mention here, as a thank you to Paul Rose, one of the most inspirational and enthusiastic people I have ever met and who has provided me with unending and unconditional support and informal guidance. Paul was the Director for the RGS for some time, and Michael Palin is the current Director. Our paths crossed briefly when I was a Trainee Outdoor Pursuits Instructor for the Bendrigg Trust in the Lake District in the late 1990s. Bendrigg Lodge is another of those very special places where anything is possible and people are taken for their potential and not for what has gone before. The centre, like the Calvert Trust, caters for people who are disabled or disadvantaged, and the staff are well practiced at taking wheelchair users caving, climbing, and canoeing, working with young offenders, and helping people to develop their full potential. I also owe a lot to the Bendrigg Trust, who set me on my initial career path, and then helped me to follow my passion for brain injuries and Neuropsychology. I don’t think I have a single unhappy memory of my four years with the Bendrigg team, and I’d highly recommend anyone to take up a volunteer post with them if they are looking for some magic, whether as a physiotherapist, nurse, teacher, young offender, or whatever. It’s a great place for a placement or if you are looking for an Outdoor Instructor post (though they don’t come up very often as no one wants to leave!).
What is really interesting when you talk to people like Paul, is that you find that they generally didn’t do so well academically or didn’t really enjoy school. Yet they all have one inspirational or key person in their life. For Paul, it was his geography teacher who he got talking to whilst on a field trip. The teacher knew of Paul’s passion for motorbikes and scuba diving and was able to connect with him through these. On talking to Ben Fogle, he also declares that he was not an academic, particularly in terms of geography, yet I imagine that he has probably now travelled and explored more countries than his teachers ever dreamed of! The same can be said of not just explorers, but other pioneers of their time. Like Einstein for example, who was dyslexic and branded an idiot by his teachers, yet his reputation of being a genius has long persisted after his death! Or Agatha Christy, another dyslexic who hated school, but went on to sell millions of copies of her novels. All this got me thinking that actually its ok to not to fit in the box, or to have ideas different to others. And the environments I have loved working in the most, and which medical school tried to knock out of me, are the ones where it is ok to be who you are and to have grand ideas or designs, as without these how is progress to be made? I wonder how many times the young chap at the RGS was laughed at because he wanted to design a car that ran on chocolate? Yet he did it, and more than that, he travelled all the way to Timbuktu, and now has an array of fascinating stories to tell. Yes, he could have just been sensible and had a 9 to 5 job, and not risked his pride, but his life is so much richer for the experience, and perhaps in a few years time we will all be running our cars on chocolate, and thinking how strange it was for people to use petrol! Imagine if George McGavin had not been allowed to get his clothes dirty as a child, how would he have learnt to tunnel through tree trunks collecting insects never seen before! He might never have become an expert, and might never have taught or inspired others, and we would not be able to sit in the comfort of our homes, cringing at all his insect bites and wowing over the new species found in the jungles.
And so, whilst not as exciting as George’s tree trunk adventures or Paul’s deep dives on nitrox, I begin my own adventures as an explorer, with the hopes that I too might one day inspire someone the way that Paul and others have inspired me, and the way that people before them have inspired them.
I have made the first move from the UK to Latvia, selling everything I own in the process and transporting two old lady cats and my Italian Greyhound in the process. My first weeks here were incredible as they coincided with the migration of thousands of birds along the western palearctic flyway. Energising to be able to wake up in the morning, down a quick coffee and then walk to the bottom of the garden to stand on sand dunes overlooking the calm Baltic Sea. The migration is really dependant on the weather and winds, and I was lucky to be the receiver of warm, blue skies on crisp October mornings. The bird were low to the ground, and flew all around my head, their yellow bellies reflecting the sunshine. Perfect for an amateur photographer like myself. Now the weather is more wintery, with thunder storms, rain and hail, but equally lovely to be able to sit indoors by the light of a warm wood burning stove, drinking English tea or testing my dad’s homemade wines of various summer fruits and vegetables. I have always loved winter.
Most of my time is taken up with helping my dad on various tasks around the grounds, including chicken feeding, egg collecting, digging the sand from the drainage, or helping around the house. The rest of the time I’m trying to learn some Georgian, and am slowly progressing through my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. So far, the only Georgian word I know well is ‘bodishit’, which is quite easy to remember for one who has spent time in an anatomy lab! Its pronounced exactly as it looks, but actually means ‘sorry’. A useful word to know given how clumsy I can be and how I routinely get myself into trouble! Georgian bears no resemblance whatsoever to any other language I have come across, so its definitely going to take a lot of work to remember even the simplest words, and the pronunciation and alphabet look equally daunting. On the other hand, the Georgian vocabulary looks a lot more simple than the English grammar I am learning on my TEFL course, and I feel sorry for anyone who has to learn English as a second language. It seems there are twelve tenses in English and none of them does what they say they will do. Just because it says it’s a past tense, doesn’t mean it refers to things in the past, as it can actually be used for present or future, etc! How on earth is that logical? Why do the English have to make everything some blooming complicated!! I’m going to have a lot of fun teaching this to my students! And as for dipthongs…..what a ridiculous word! Apparently they are something to do with grammar, and I find it strange that I will have to say this word in front of a class and with a serious face….dip thongs! I’m starting to wonder whether it is indeed the English language that is so bizarre, rather than the other way around! We are after all an island nation, and have probably developed our own unique insular ways compared to all the other countries with neighbours?
Well, I finally received my plane tickets by email, and my friend Sarah is one of the first over due mum’s to have her baby, so I guess I’m not the only one on adventures new. And she is probably going to be feeling just as grumpy tired as I will be by the time I arrive in Georgia at 04.25am tomorrow! Now I just have to find a way of passing 13 hours in Riga airport, an airport that sadly I know really well. I could have ventured into Riga for the day, but funds are extremely tight, and with my bag being 2 kilos over the 20kilo limit, I had to transfer most of my stuff into my day sack, and I don’t fancy lugging that around in the rain! Plus, the agent booking my plane ticket from Riga, forgot or didn’t realise that they had to book and pay for luggage extra to a flight, so that ate into any funds I could have used for travelling, and the exchange rate for the pound versus Latvian Lat is dire today, so the value of my sterling was not as good as I would have liked.
Still, the journey to Riga was thus far fairly uneventful, so that’s a great relief. We had a lot of rain in the night and the water table is high where we live so it can flood easily where people have not dug ditches for run-off water. We are fine because we have good drainage after severe flooding a few years ago, but further into the village, the ‘summer homes people’ don’t have drainage and the pot holes in the rain make travel in even the 4 x 4 a bit tricky. But we got through no problem, and made good time to the airport in Palanga. I’m currently reading Michael Palin’s book about New Europe and noticed he was once in Latvia, at both Riga and Palanga, but I haven’t read that chapter yet. Will be interesting to read his take on things and compare to my experiences.
Palanga airport and the area around has changed so much since my first flight back in the 90s, when there were still border guards between Lithuania and Latvia, as well as a time difference between the two countries. Looking around at the people and the plane, its amazing to think how different things are from my first flights here.
I don’t think Air Baltic flew to Palanga back then, or possibly only in the summer?? So I think I came with Aeroflot, changing in Sweden possibly, or maybe France or Germany, I can’t quite remember now? It was an incredibly noisy plane, the noisiest and most bone shaking flight I have ever been on in my entire life, and my ear drums were shaken so much that it took a good week for them to recover! As a scuba diver with pretty rock sold eardrums, that’s saying something! It was really cold and dark on the plane, and it felt more like a cargo plane than a passenger one. There were no instructions, or maybe there were but only in Russian and you had to read for yourself, and I don’t remember the service at all, but maybe I’m being harsh now I see things through the lovely warm eyes of Air Baltic customer service and warmth?
On arrival at the airport, it was dark, icy and damp, and we had to walk a short distance from plane to door, and then wait outside in the snow for what seemed a really long time (although I probably wasn’t such a seasoned traveller back then). We were met with men in combats or maybe black outfits, with big machine guns, cocked and ready. Then once inside, there was a passport check, and onto the luggage carousal, then through the doors into a small lobby and you were pretty much on the street. Then to get into Latvia we had to drive and stop for passport stamping and inspection by the Lithuanian border guard, and then the same again with the Latvian guards. My memories of Lithuania wre probably also a little tainted by our car being broken into during one of my first visits, and a local person telling us it was the Russian mafia who were involved.
Now, things are very different indeed. Even over my four or five trips this year alone, I have noticed a massive change. Not just in the kind of people flying, but in the number of passengers and the bigger planes being used, and it isn’t purely a seasonal thing. Most of the people on the plane today were English speaking, mostly from Edinburgh, as well as a few Spanish speaking people, some German people, and a few Americans. Amongst the passengers were a business couple. The husband, an American, on the phone for the duration of the wait in the departures lounge until take off, selling stocks and shares and ordering people around, rather loudly. His wife, a Scottish lady, who accompanies him on some of his trips, along with their white highland terrier who looks completely uninterested in the whole thing, and sits under the seat for the duration of the flight, sleeping. There’s a group of Russian and German speaking middle aged guys who have been here kitesurfing. This seems to be a massive market lately, and on my last flight I spoke to a French guy whose wife was Lithuanian , but they lived in the UK. He had friends in Palanga, who would call him whenever the weather was looking good for kitesurfing, and he would jump on a flight for whatever waves he could catch. The waves today from the air looked perfect for kitesurfing, not as rough as last week, but just nice, with a stretch of miles of waves along the Baltic Coast.
Later, I met another lady from Scotland and her colleague also from Edinburgh, both in Palanga on business for the banking company they worked for in the UK. They were chatting to a German chap, who they had met in the queue at check in. This was their first visit to the Baltics and they had been quite surprised by what they had experienced, although their was much hilarity at the hydrolic doors on the bus which would not close today, but luckily the captain of the plane managed to fix them before boarding his own bus for the 20m journey to the terminal at Riga!
The Palanga airport is still small, served only by an SAS flight to Copenhagen in the evening, and an Air Baltic flight to Riga in the morning. Its smart and clean, with good facilities and comfy, black, leather chairs. It still only has one carousal for luggage, but that is all it needs. And I haven’t seen anyone in the passport checking booth for a very long time, pretty pointless given the flight is from Riga so is domestic! There is also a bus to escort you the very short journey (again, around 20m!) to the doorway, but you don’t have to queue outside anymore, and you don’t see armed guards looking daunting anymore. The departure lounge is a lot more business looking and contemporary now, as is the Riga airport, completely transformed, and making the UK airports look like something from the last century. In the UK, you have to pay to use the internet, but in Riga there is free wifi, and if you pay 25lats you can have a personal guided tour of the airport, or take the bus into Riga if you have time for some sightseeing. Its an altogether comfortable, clean, and relaxing airport, and you don’t have to walk too far to reach your departure lounge.
I’m still pretty sleepy as we take off from Palanga, and its dark on the ground. But as soon as we are above the clouds, we are greeted with a beautiful sunrise and a nice warmth of morning sun on my face. The clouds are bunched together for warmth, but are so white that I can see the floaters on my eyes, and as we fly East towards the sunrise, the clouds look almost like snow, glistening in the sun like snow at the north pole or a great expanse. It’s a short flight, 45minutes at most, but we are early today as there is no wind. We quickly descend and its as if the plane, like myself is somewhat reluctant to dip back below the clouds and out of the sunshine. But the staff as ever are extremely friendly and polite and the flight is relaxed with people chatting.
There’s even an article in the Flight magazine today, about Tbilisi, where I will be spending my next few days, so I will have to use some of my 13 hours to puruse that later.
As we take off from Palanga, it still inspires me when I see the never ending sand stretching its way along the Baltic Coast, and again when we land, it looks just the same, just a line of never ending and uninterrupted sand. My plans to cycle around the Baltic Sea along this, start to sink in a little. It looks like nothing on a map, but when you see how far it is to Riga, you realise what a mission lies ahead. But it gets me thinking. I’m wondering whether I should contact Air Baltic and tell them of my plans, maybe see whether they could have a member of staff meet me from every airport they fly to, and to show me their favourite things in the area? Especially since they fly to these places so often, whether large airports or small regional ones like Palanga. Could be really interesting to get another person’s point of view, and I would love to find out more about how life has changed for Air Baltic. Last year (I think it was?), they introduced a Loyalty Card called Baltic Miles, and it has totally improved my life. Its probably the first loyalty card that actually feels like it is rewarding me and that it is congratulating my loyalty. It actually works! Quite novel in this day in age!
And so, I’ve been at Riga airport for a few hours now, and again, its interesting to see how things have progressed. A lot of people prefer the old Riga airport as it felt more homely, but I really like the new one, although I might not be saying that after 13 hours! On arrival, I spoke to a helpful lady in the very swish Business Lounge, as I was wondering whether it was possible to pay a charge to use the facilities for a long transfer wait. Sadly it wasn’t, which is fair enough and keeps the loyalty and standards high, but I know other airports offer this for a charge if you are willing to pay. However, she did let me know about the free wifi, and actually that was all I was after anyway, as I have no use of the showers or bedrooms, or buffet service VIP treatment, but a nap would be nice! But its more fun and better to pass the time when you can people watch at least.
The airport was really busy earlier on, but had a lul afterwards, and its obvious when a plane arrives as there is a flurry of activity, then relative quietness again. The Laima café serves lovely coffee and cakes and the staff have great English (lucky for me as my Latvian isn’t very good, but I am working on it). The music is at a nice volume, not blaring and not what I call supermarket or demonised classical music, just a nice mixture of modern tunes (all in English strangely). The seats are like leather couches and whicker chairs and are comfortable and clean, as are the tables. The cakes are traditionally Latvian, some with fruit and jelly, but all are beautiful but simply decorated. Seats like this would be destroyed in about 5 minutes in a UK airport! There is no shortage of people with cleaning trolleys either and you don’t seem to hear that typical complaining and putting the world to rights that you get in the UK airports, people just get on with their jobs. In the newspaper shop the young girl is filling the shelf diligently with water bottles, and chatting away in Latvian on her mobile which is squashed between her ear and shoulder. If anything she seems to work quicker and it doesn’t interfere with her work one bit.
Oddly, there seem to be a lot of Scottish people in the airport today, and again, this is something that is different to my earlier trips to Latvia over ten years ago. Its like the world is starting to open its eyes and realise that there is a new Europe out there and that it is reachable without spending a fortune, but has so much more to offer than many of the more popular overpriced places of the UK. People I have spoken to in the UK are always surprised when I talk about visiting Latvia. Like they think it is just a place full of tall blonde, skinny girls looking for a rich foreign husband, or living in some backstreet brothel. I guess it comes from stereotypes of ladies looking for love on internet chat rooms, but its so far from how Latvia really is, and it’s a shame for those outside of Latvia who miss out on a visit, and for those in Latvia who miss out on the opportunities from tourism and business. On the other hand, its nice to keep hold of my old Latvia, the one that was much less expensive, and which offered the most amazing hotels and restaurants for Brits on a shoe string budget. Now, since joining the EU, there are new laws and taxes, and the cost of living has increased substantially, but not necessarily in line with wages. On my first few visits I felt like a millionare relative to the local costs, now I struggle to keep up, with some things even costing more than in the UK due to the Lat being stronger than Stirling right now.
I meet another group of people from Scotland. They are late 50s, and comparing swollen ankles and removing bracelets that no longer fit their arms. Anyone would think they had flown from the other side of the world! They are busy spending their last centimes as they won’t be able to change them back in the UK. Its funny to listen to them, especially having been away from Britain for the past month or so. They are fussing over who will look after luggage, and the husbands seem happy not to move so willingly oblige and wait for coffee and chocolate to be delivered to them, The ladies goes off to the toilet as if it’s a major group outing, announcing that they are off to the toilet. Then later returning with Russian dolls and anxiously discussing whether they should get another one as maybe they missed out the neighbour’s aunt Lilly or whoever! It seems a shame to me. They have come to Latvia, and even though there is a shop selling all Latvian items, they have purchased something that has come from and is representative of Russia. They will take that home as a ‘gift from Latvia’ and others will see that and think of Latvia. Kind of misses the point in my view, especially when there are so many typical Baltic souvenirs that they could have chosen: amber, Riga Balsams, Laima chocolate, and so much more. I feel a bit patriotic and its not even my country! But I would be just as upset if someone came to the UK and purchased a bottle of Sangria as something to represent the UK. Yes, a lot of the population is Russian and it was once under Soviet Rule, and yes Russian culture is largely enmeshed into the culture and make up of Latvia, but this is not Russia. If the recipient happened to collect dolls then fair enough, and I guess you could argue that the money goes back to Latvia, but it just seems an awful shame and the waste of an opportunity. But, I guess that is also the free will of the Scottish ladies too, and I am sure the recipients will be happy with their gifts no matter what.
And so, I have managed to while away over 11 hours, and have now gone through departure gate d3 for my final wait. The battery on my aging mac is about to die, despite being plugged in for my marathon time on facebook, and I have caught up with all the gossip and made comments on almost everyone’s staus posts, I am a proper social blogger for the first time in ages! I have even been on twitter and replied to posts of the rich, the famous, and the obscure. The really great thing about having the free wifi is that I have spent a lot of the day chatting briefing to Jane. I haven’t actually met her yet, but we have arranged to meet up for breakfast or a cuppa since she arrives at Tbilisi airport at 2am and myself at 04.25am. We have been chatting for the past few weeks about the programme in Georgia and our expectations and anxieties, and I am keen to meet her at last and hope that she is all that I have made her out to be in my head. This will be the first time I have met someone on the internet before meeting them in person, and as such is going to be a completely new experience. She is originally from Beijing in China, but lives in Toronto, and from her comments to friends, I can see that she speaks several languages already. I don’t know much more about her, other than we share an interest in opera and both like Loreena McKennitt, although I imagine Jane is a big fan, whereas I like her music enough to enjoy it, but am not mad passionate about her talents. Jane has spent most of the day at the airport in Istanbul, but unlike me she doesn’t have access to hotmail and her internet isn’t quite as good, but she sounds in good spirits all the same.
The departure lounge is fairly quiet so far. About twenty people spread over two departure gates, but I can’t tell whether they are just spread out, or some are for another flight? There are no flights on the boards yet as its too early. I spot a couple in matching green fleece jackets, presumably a couple. The lady looks more manly than the man, and they are probably late fourties. I’m guessing they are tourists too since the man is reading an Engish edition of a Georgian tourist guidebook, the same as I have in my bag. They are also watching with interest two ladies in their mid thirtys who are now chatting after one asked the other to watch her luggage whilst she went to the toilet. Both are speaking Georgian, and I can’t help but examine them for signs of what the guidebooks have told me about the Georgian character. Awful, to base my first experiences of Georgian people one two complete strangers that I have never met or spoken to! Suddenly the whole of Georgian character is on their heads, so I hope that Britains aren’t judged by the rowdy young folk off to Spain and the likes to get drunk and have stag does!! The ladies are very pretty, and smiling and relaxed as they chat to each other, whilst myself and the couple in matching jackets watch on, curiously! A young chap swaggers down the stairs into the departure room, looking nervous but trying to look ok about things. He has a very retro haircut and a sports jacket. Shortly after an old lady comes down the stairs, worn looking, and its hard to tell whether she is actually female given her warm clothes and woolly hat.
Either way, its going to be pretty exciting now I’m finally off to pastures new, away from the familiar airport that I have sat in so many times and the same departure lounge. Soon it will be non routine things, and I can forget my ponderings over the airport’s auto flushing toilets, that seem to flush when they feel like it, yet don’t take into account the business of the toilet cubicles, and don’t empty the pan before the next person comes in. I’m not keen on this, and I don’t understand why someone would even think this is a good idea! You do your business, and its there for the next person to see, or it flushes whilst you are doing your business, leaving you with with a wet arse from toilet water! Its just wrong! Then I managed to get in the toilet cubicle straight after a very large, and very odourous woman, whose bodily odours were so rich that I had to refrain from vomiting or inhaling! And that’s something coming from one who spent time cleaning shit off drunken men’s bits during the football world cup! Then, for some reason I met a lady in the cubicles who was the exact double of Austin Powers, in her appearance and features, but also in her black suade jacket with shiny buttons, and white cuff and shirt edging, and her Dolce and Gabbana glasses! I didn’t tell her she looked like Austin Powers, but it was a bit hard not to stare a little. At that point I pretended to be British and unfamiliar with the soap dispenser and automatic water in the water!!!
Another old lady struggles down the stairs with her hand luggage and I think about going to offer my assistance. It saddens me because I remember that the head of my medical school accussed me of ‘rescuer behaviour’ because I rushed off to visit my terminally ill grandfather in his last month of life, and because of this I decide to let her struggle instead. Others also leave her to struggle, although their backs are to her so they can’t see her, and they are busy chatting or playing with children. Then it strikes me as odd that the lady took the stairs in the first place, when there is a perfectly good lift right next to her!! Then I recall an article I read from the Air Baltic flight magazine which said that Georgians don’t like taking lifts because the power supply in Georgia often fails for no reason at all. I wonder whether this is actually true, and a feel a buzz of excitement at the prospect of what awaits me in Georgia!
My Glasses are Nervous
The past week has flown by in so many ways, yet it feels as if so much has been accomplished in a short space of time. I am now with my host family in a small town called Vale in a district which I can neither spell or pronounce! But am hoping that eventually it will sink in somehow!
Vale has no mention in the Lonely Planet guide to Georgia, and in the Bradt guide it is mentioned as the town you have to pass through on the way to Turkey as the border is just a couple of kilometres from the town. The guide book was written a few years ago, but is already out of date as the rocky road has now been replaced by a fairly nice one, and there is even a new bright red, many windowed police station thanks to the new Prime Minister who seems to have done everything from flying planes to driving racing cars, and the people seem to love him! I really hope that one day Vale will have its own little section in a travel book as it really is a beautiful little town surrounded by snow capped mountains.
Vale has one main road, which comes to a crossroads just by my school, and is also the centre for catching a bus or marshrutka (mini van) to the rest of Georgia. The main street has some beautiful old buildings, but it seems many of these are now empty. There are numerous ‘markets’ or shops selling pretty much the same stuff, and there are several old churches, an Armenian school, number two school which has a Russian section, number one school where I am teaching, and possibly another school too.
The people of Vale seem very friendly so far, and for now myself and Ben (another English Teacher) seem to be the attraction of the village, with word spreading quicker than even I had expected. The women seem to have more established beards than the men, and I am sure the family’s cousin who is studying to be a dentist, will have no shortage of work in Vale and possibly within the region, especially when the chocolates are also so good. The people are curious and stare at me constantly but seem to be really happy that I am here and teaching them English. One old lady came up to me on the short walk home from school and told me that if I needed a haircut she knew people who could do it for free. I hope this was a compliment!! I have lost track of all the invites I have received to join people for dinner and socials, so I hope no one holds anything against me if I fail to attend anything!!
Today was my first day at school, and I have to say that I did actually really enjoy the experience. I was the first one up in the house, which seems to be a first, and my new mum Tamari or Maia as she prefers to be called (who is two years older than myself) sewed up a hole in a shirt I had managed to buy from a second hand store in Latvia, so that was great, albeit strange having another female sewing up my clothes whilst I stood half dressed! Her and my new sister, 16 year old Marie were a great help late last night when I was trying to decide what to wear to school, and they definitely chose well, as I had no idea what to expect, having never even seen a Georgian school before! Once I was dressed I had to go outside and down the stairs to the ground floor of the house, where my new grandma was already preparing the fire. We haven’t had water for a few days, and I am getting pretty euphoric at the mere thought of having a shower, but I managed to speak to the grandma in my minimal Georgian and lots of gesturing, and she very kindly presented me with a bowl of water, so I was at least able to wash my face and clean my teeth. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that the sink was not connected to a pipe and when I emptied the bowl in the sink, the water went all over the tiled floor!! Luckily my ‘bodishi’ came in handy (again!!), and grandma seemed pretty cool about the whole thing, although I noticed this evening that we have a new pipe ready to be connected. Some time later, everyone appeared, and after a hurried breakfast, I followed ‘Arto’ my host dad (4 years older than me), through the back garden and onto the main street, and within 5 minutes we were at my school, closely followed by Marie who was running behind us.
The school seems pretty big and has just under 400 students from the age of 5 to 18, all in one building. Arto is a sports teacher at the same school, though I am still wondering whether there has been a mistake somewhere because he doesn’t look sporty at all, smokes a lot (like most Georgians so I am told), and drinks his home made wine at any opportunity. He assures me that he loves children, but I can’t help being a little scared of him still, but I have no reason to complain at all (other than him kicking our family cat, which was a bit of a shock and thankfully disapproved of by the other family members). Arto very kindly took me into the staff room, the smartest and warmest room in the entire school, and introduced me to some other teachers. Then a little hand rung bell went and I was whisked upstairs through dark and dinghy concrete, non heated corridors to my first class. The English teacher was really nice and the children much better behaved than I had been lead to believe. Unlike British students, the children were really keen to show me what they knew, and soon the whole class had arms up in the air, and two fingers pointing to the ceiling and shouting ‘mas, mas, mas’ the shortened version of ‘maserobeli’ or teacher. Some were shy, and others standing or reaching high to get the teachers attention.
The desks were basic but practical, but had nice blue metal wired drawers underneath, and the students seemed very organised. My first mistake was to attempt to put my bag on the floor when I arrived, as apparently people don’t do this in Georgia because the floors are considered too dirty, and I was soon encouraged to put my bag on the desk. On closer inspection, I discovered that every student was perched on the edge of their seat, not for excitement, but because they had their bag on the chair. Each class I went to had the same set up, and each had a visiting old lady, who would stoke up the wood burning stove in the corner of the room. Apparently an older student somewhere in the building had decided it would be fun to put pepper in the stove, and so the whole school, including the teachers, spent most of the day coughing and sneezing!!! As a one off this seemed pretty fun to me, but I’m sure the novelty will soon wear off!
I’m working with three main English teachers at the school; Julia a short lady who seems to wear grey a lot, and carries a matching tape recorder everywhere she goes. Not surprising given that every other teacher is struggling with lessons without one! Maia is one of many people who seem to be related to my host family, and seems really nice so far. She has children at the school as it seems do many teachers. She is taller, with black hair and black eyebrows, and like so many Georgians wears black all the time, on top of which is a black leather jacket since the school is not so warm. Marina also wears a lot of black and has black hair and eyebrows, and spends most of the time apologising, but she is also lovely. There are two other English teachers and they also teach Georgian, but they tell me they are beginner teachers, and so I won’t really get to work with them as much sadly. But I did manage to get one lesson with one of them, and in my mind she is actually the best of all the teachers as she has so much energy and a really positive way with the children. Sadly, I haven’t remembered the names of everyone I have met so far. All the teachers are great and all have a slightly different style of teaching, but clearly enjoy their jobs, and the relationships with their students is very different to that of teachers in England. In general Georgians seem to be very tactile people, and it seems common for people, especially teachers to put an arm around a child or to touch them on their back and to show affection. Sometimes they pat the children on the head when they have down well, and sometimes they push their heads forward gently when they make a mistake, but the kids don’t seem bothered by it, and are all too eager to learn and to improve.
Sometimes it’s a bit tricky with the English teachers as they do make a lot of mistakes, and its difficult not to correct them, especially when they are correcting a student who might actually have the right answer or pronunciation. But, I need to establish myself a bit more first, and I don’t want to point out the errors in front of the class, but I hope to come up with a good strategy somehow. The teachers are learning really quickly, and are keen that I should help them with their pronunciation, as most Georgians have not been out of the country as they cannot get a passport and its expensive, so the teachers have learnt English from Georgian or Russian speakers and not really heard native English speaking people before. I’m therefore hoping that they will be able to pick up on my accent and self correct their pronunciation, which is what seems to be happening so far. Even though they teach English, communication is still sometimes difficult as their English is not perfect by any means, and I wonder how much gets lost in translation sometimes. One of the better teachers made a mistake on her colours in class and another told me that her glasses were nervous, but I know that the teachers are also nervous about my being there and I am sure there is some anxiety about losing their jobs and being replaced by native speakers, so I hope they will relax a bit soon. They also all want me to work with their class, so they are trying to show me how great their students are, so I hope that my agreeing to work with every class will help them to relax a bit. Whatever happens, its going to be a learning curve for both parties as teaching is new to me and I am looking to them to help me develop my abilities, just as native English is new to them, so it will definitely be an interesting journey, and I really hope that everyone is richer for the experience.
Heirs and Graces and my life as Jason
This time last week, I was known as Jason and managed to regain my identity as Sarah. I’m not exactly sure how it came about, but on arrival at the airport in Tbilisi at 04.25am, I came through customs and a mass of people and did three circuits of the airport until I finally found a man with a tiny sign waiting in arrivals to collect one Jason Rice. I was starting to wonder if the teaching project was all a con at this point, and since all the other people holding up banners had left, I thought I would double check whether the last man waiting might just be waiting for me. He wasn’t, he was waiting for Jason, but he worked for TLG (Teach and Learn in Georgia). He didn’t know who he was waiting for, but thought he was waiting for a guy, as I later discovered. So I met him, pointed at his sign, and he promptly handed me an ID badge with the name Jason Rice and whisked my luggage to the currency counter, before we got into his minivan. I thought Jason was a strange name for a Georgian as it sounded more English, but I said I was pleased to meet him all the same and accepted that maybe he was Jason Rice and just wanted to communicate his name via the ID badge, but he refused to take it back.
I then spent ten or twenty minutes being transported by him to the hotel, and he was very kind and made a real effort to help me feel at home, even though we had no language between us. First I was given boiled sweets which he carefully hand picked for me from the dashboard of the van, and then he meticulously tried to find a radio channel that he felt would most put me at my ease, settling on Kylie Minogue after some consideration. It was pretty dark outside since it was so early in the morning, and I started to think about whether or not I should eat the sweets he had just given to me. I didn’t want to offend him, but had also just put some chewing gum in my mouth, so I quickly put the sweets in a pocket, hoping he wouldn’t see or be offended. I probably would have eaten them otherwise as he seemed a decent chap, but I was thinking of the headlines too: ‘girl takes candy from a total stranger and is murdered’. But he seemed pretty decent and he also was employed by the government, so he couldn’t have been too dangerous. To be honest, I was probably more at risk from Georgian drivers than from being poisoned by sweets, as Georgians are renowned for being crazy drivers, and even at 04.30am, there were still several cars about. We stopped at some very funky traffic lights which had a counter attached to them so you could see how long you had to wait (in red) and how long you had during ‘go’ (in green). Stopping at traffic lights was an entirely new experience for me, somewhat akin to being on the Harry Potter Night Bus!! I thought I had already experienced the craziest driving in the world, whilst living in the Caribbean, but that was not a patch on this. It was just as if we were greyhounds, put in a box, and waiting for the door to fly open so we could tear away around the track as soon as the lights changed to green.
Wednesday 10th November 2010
Oh my goodness. Time is flying by so fast at the moment and no time to write all the things I want to write about. Today was my third day at my new school and my second week in Georgia. I am definitely going to turn into a chip, because my family took note of the fact that I said I liked potatoes, and now insist on serving potatoes with every meal, but mostly in the form of chips!! They are really ‘gemerelia’ (delicious), but I am sure my cholesterol has doubled in the past week, and since the other main constituent of every meal is bread, I am started to feel and look very bloated!! The other foods on offer are home made cheese which is incredibly salty and made from unpasteurised milk from the family cow, and rotten green tomatoes which have been pickled, which taste better than expected, but I am not overly keen on. At most meals there is also cream from our cow, homemade cake with cream, and chai (sweet black tea) or strong Turkish style coffee served from espresso cups and which comes already sweetened.
Last night I had my first shower in ages, since we had water for the first time all week, and the facilities were far better than I had expected so that was a relief! I am rather worried about the period situation though, as it seems there is no toilet at my school, or if there is , it is most likely a squat toilet with no paper or sink. Plus our home toilet takes long enough just to get rid of toilet paper (which is only a trifle better than the tracing paper style toilet paper we had in cold, icicle filled toilets in the primary school playground when I was young). Fortunately, I did bring tampons with me as it seems that every market and shop in Georgia does not sell such a thing, apart from large stores in Tbilisi, but certainly not in Vale!
During our cultural lessons last week, we had it drummed into us that Georgians are known for their spontanaeity, and as if on queue, I experiencd this spontaneity twice on one day!! Firstly, having just planned my lesson with my co teacher for tomorrows 11th class, we were informed by another teacher that we might only have half the class tomorrow as they might go on a school trip to see a church. This soon became an excursion for the whole class, thus leaving me with no class to teach, and then an invitation to join them on the trip. Which I am really excited about! Later my last lesson was cancelled, and so I ended up finishing school at 1pm today, and my host sister decided to miss her last two classes, one of which was sport which happens to be taught by her father! Everyone in Vale is either a relative or friend of my host family, so that is pretty funny, and sometimes it seems that a person might be related to both the host mum and the host dad of my family. I then decided that I wanted to work on some things when I got home, but after 5 minutes received a phone call from my host mum, who had managed to get two tickets for the theatre this evening as part of Akalteke’s festival. So, myself and Marie then had five minutes in which to get ready, put shoes on, and run into town for the bus.
The theatre was really interesting, and I still managed to follow most of the plot, even though my Georgian is terrible. Basically, a girl meets a boy, sleeps with him, becomes pregnant, marries, and then he is sent off to war, where he is killed by Russian soldiers. She has twins, and falls in love over time with a Russian soldier, and they all live happily ever after! The whole thing was pretty affectionate by even my Western standards, and it was surprising to see this from such a religious country and with so many young children in the audience, but nobody seemed to mind. As is typical in Georgia, many people were wearing their black clothes, and it was funny to see how serious everyone looked as smiling is saved for closer relationships and friends. Yet, everybody clapped loudly and stood up at the end and clearly enjoyed the performance, despite looking so stern. As theatres go, the standard was really good and the group were touring from their home in Tbilsisi, all around the country, and there will be a different group every night for one week or two as part of the festival. Tomorrow my host mum and brother will go and see another play, but tonight we were honoured to see the writer, who also had a birthday today! The theatre was in pretty good condition, very classical in style, and also very concrete, but beautiful from the outside, and right next to the new Park (another of the Prime Ministers improvements, along with funding of theatre and cultural events). Sadly, the rule on mobile phones is pretty non existent, so great moments of the play were lost to the sounds of several mobile phones, and other adults were allowed to tell off young children if they fidgeted or talked too much. I’m really starting to understand now, that Georgians have a different concept of personal space when compared with my own expectations. Firstly, children in the theatre sit right behind the person in front of them in the audience, and the adults don’t seem to mind having a child breathing down their neck. It’s the same with the teachers in class, who are always touching the students or their colleagues as a way of giving positive reinforcement or support. I’m sure if you did the same thing in the UK then some bugger would get you struck off! Fortunately we were spotted by one of the family’s many relatives whilst walking along to the taxi rank, so that was great timing and saved a few lari too. It was also a great opportunity to speak to the driver, a cousin, who works for one of the banks, and who visits people’s homes when they want a loan, to count up how much their cow or crops might be worth.
Periods, Post, and the Prime Minister of Georgia.
Well, I can honestly say that its getting difficult to keep up my writing at the moment, but only because I am having so many new experiences. Today I started my period, been waiting for it a few days and getting anxious about the practicalities and being in a new way of life. But, there is nothing I can do about it and am sure things will be fine once I’m settled into life here.
So, the first issue with Georgia and the menstrual cycle is that there seems to be a lack of tampons for sale anywhere! Thankfully I brought rations for about two months, but after that could be tricky, particularly as I have no postal address and would be charged tax if anyone sent me tampons from afar! I hate sanitary towels, but am thinking I will probably have to use them as well, since no one ever seems to use the toilet in Georgia, probably because they only drink small cups of coffee and not much else all day. Also, I am noticing more and more that people seem to leave floaters in the toilet pan, again not surprising given that the diet mainly consists of potatoes and bread and lots of fat. I’m not even sure when I last passed a motion as I haven’t eaten anything green since I’ve been here, and my ever growing belly, just seems to be full of air.
I know its not nice to talk about this stuff, but I feel I have to talk about it as it’s the biggest issue in my life right now, and any fellow travellers to Georgia should be properly prepared! If your female, then always bring tampons, and babywipes!!
Now I’m pretty lucky here as my family built an indoor bathroom and toilet a couple of years ago, and the bathroom is pretty decent, with a little wood burning stove in the corner which heats the water (when we have it!). However, we only have paper thick toilet rolls, and a bad flush, so even little things are difficult to get rid of, and its pretty usual to see what presents the previous user has left for you in the pan. So, I plucked up courage and attempted to ask my host sister what happened about sanitary products. Marie informed me that I should put them into a little box and hand the box to her mum or her grandma, who would deal with them by throwing them on the fire. This is a very reasonable suggestion, but still very strange for me, since usually I wouldn’t need to tell anyone that I had my period, and the thought of carrying a little package out of the bathroom, past my host dad and brother, outside, down the steps, and into the kitchen to give to grandma, is a little overwhelming to say the least. Aside from which, grandma has even less English than I do Georgian, so just explaining to her, without her being tempted to open the box to see what is inside could be rather embarrassing!!
Luckily, I managed to sneak the first tampon into the main bin in the kitchen, having carefully wrapped it, and then tried to hide it amongst other papers, ready for when grandma burns it. The second tampon I managed to deposit at the theatre toilet, which was another difficult experience. No lock on the toilet door, an ankle which feels broken when I squat, (since I twisted it during the three peaks challenge back in September), and a lack of experience in inserting said tampon whilst squatting and trying not to fall over. Plus a lack of soap for handwashing, water, and towels for drying. But mission accomplished all the same. The third tampon also went fairly smoothly as the wood burner was going so I also managed a shower today, and I think I managed to discretely put the tampon in the fire, where I hope it has burnt completely. The next one can go into the bin in the upstairs kitchen since everyone should now be in bed and I should be the first one up in the morning, as the family are always late in the morning!
Tomorrow is going to prove fairly tricky, as I don’t know whether there is a toilet at school, and if there is it will be a squat one again, possibly with no place to deposit a tampon, and with kids running in and out, plus its only a five minute break between lessons. But, hopefully once tomorrow is done, I should know how things work a bit better.
15th November 2010
Well, my fears were well grounded, but at least I was prepared. My host sister showed me where the toilets were, and it tuned out there was a room with an open door, and 4 stalls with squat toilets, open bins, no paper and no toilet doors. Teachers and students use the same toilets, and if you use the first one then everyone in the corridor can see you. The end one at least has a little privacy in the form of an end wall and can’t be seen from the corridor. So there I was walking past my students to the end stall and then trying to discretely insert a tampon whilst also not falling over or getting myself dirty. The bucket was unfortunately empty on my first trip, so I couldn’t hide my used tampon, but on my second visit later in the day, the bin was filled with old written pages from note books which students had used as toilet paper. No toilet appeared to have a flush either, so I don’t know what happens about number twos!! I made a vow that I would only ever need the toilet when absolutely desperate, and resorted to using both tampons and sanitary towels from now on, but hopefully I won’t need to use the toilet tomorrow. It was certainly an interesting experience though, and a little bit of an insight into Georgian culture. When I was at school many years ago, in the UK, we would find it funny just seeing a teacher enter a staff toilet, as if teachers never use toilets some how. Makes me realise how reserved us British folk are compared to the rest of the world!!
In other news today, it seems that the whole of Vale is cabbage mad at the moment, and whilst the Brits are renowned for talking about the weather, I am beginning to see that Vale-ians seem to mainly talk about cabbages or ‘compostes’ as they are called here (ignore my spelling as I haven’t even mastered that yet!). My family have 5000 of them, which are now ready to pick. My host mum and my host grandmother were angry with my host dad on Friday because they wanted him to pick the cabbages, but he did not want to. Then over the weekend, he was in trouble because he had cut the cabbages but left them there and the ladies of the family thought someone might steal them. Today, I actually now have some time to myself for the first time since I arrived, but I have the cabbages to thank for my freedom!!
After my short walk home from school, passing several lorries filled to capacity with cabbages, I reached my house to find my host brother, 14 year old Lasha, another boy, three men, and my grandma, throwing cabbages from the lorry to each other, along a chain and onto our yard, which was last week full of fire wood, but has been replaced by a huge pile of cabbages. Once the lorry was empty, my grandma took the men indoors and is now preparing a meal for all the workers. Since I am still a guest for one more week, I can get away with not helping to prepare the meals or to serve the men as my hosts would not permit it as it would make them look bad hosts, but equally I cannot eat with the men, nor is there room, and I would definitely feel uncomfortable joining them. My youngest host sister Lucia, 7 years old, is now at music school after finishing at main school today, and Marie my 16 year old host sister is still at school. My host mum Tamari (or Maia as she prefers to be called) doesn’t get home until around 7pm, when she then takes on her house wife roles again. So, for now, I have the luxury of some time to myself which is fantastic.
Usually, I come home from school, help grandma a little bit, either stacking fire wood or doing something domestic, and when someone else comes home we eat a meal of homemade bread, home made cheese, pasta in milk from our cow, cake, and a coffee. Later at 7pm, Maia returns home and we eat the same food as dinner together, but sometimes accompanied by fried potatoes, mashed potato, or cabbages. Then its homework time, tv time, and soon as I can escape I plan my lessons, and try and catch up on some writing or other things. I have ample time really (but rarely alone) and its great to finish school early everyday, but most of my time gets taken up in sitting with family or visitors, so I really enjoy snatching at any quiet time I can get.
Last night, we went to the theatre for the third time in a week. It’s a theatre festival in Athaltiske and we have a pass for one week, so that has been really great. But I think we won’t go tonight as we still have cabbages to pick and its expensive to get a taxi back from the town. I’m still loving the fact that I have time for a life again, without my medical school studies, and its nice to still go with the flow rather than have everything in life planned. Arts and culture are a large part of Georgian life, and the Prime Minister is well loved because of his efforts to keep Georgian history and traditions alive. My sister was telling me that under Soviet rule, Vale had its own theatre and cinema and everybody could go, but now the buildings are ruins and the nearest cinema or theatre is Athaltiske, which is easy to reach.