There is something special about being away from your own country, especially for a prolonged period of time. It somehow helps you to understand more about your own culture and belief system, and what it means to be ‘from’ somewhere.
This is even more so, when there are National events taking place, like Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, which took place today in London. It is true, that often you cannot see the wood for the trees, and I am starting to realise that this is particularly the case when you live in a country that is so alien to your own, and it is only when you view this from outside, that you fully appreciate your own culture and traditions. Incidently, whilst we are on the topic of weddings, Georgians wear their wedding ring on the opposite hand to Brits, but I have no idea why either wear rings on the side that they do. Maybe it is linked to the closeness to the heart, but I would really like to know, if anyone can answer this question for me!!
Easter weekend was particularly crazy, but also the best Easter break I have ever had, and the first time I really began to understand the meaning behind Easter, far beyond the chocolate eggs (which incidently I did not receive this year, because it is not a tradition in Georgia sadly!). But, I believe there is a parcel on its way to me from one of my best and longest term friends in the UK☺. One of my closest friends in Georgia came to stay for the weekend, and because she is also a Brit, it was nice to relax and unwind and to have a break from minding my p’s and q’s and was the first time in a long time that I could talk English at my normal pace and using my everyday language. We had absolutely no plans, and our only thought was to go with the flow and just enjoy having a place where we could relax and do nothing, which has really not happened since we arrived in Georgia seven months ago. No matter how nice the host family are, there is nothing like being able to kick back and relax and to just be yourself again with no responsibilities or pressure. Having said that, it was nice to realise that I also missed my new host family somewhat, as they gone to Batumi to see their family for the weekend. It is certainly true in Georgia, that absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially as even a few days is a long time for Georgians when they do not see or speak to each other!
We had no plans of seeing anyone or doing anything, but it ended up as one of the most sociable and best weekends ever and a chance to develop proper friendships, recharge the batteries, and reflect on life in Georgia thus far. On Friday, we were at a birthday dinner, on Saturday we were invited for dinner, on Sunday we were invited to lunch, and then to an Easter supra, and on Monday we watched films and ate ice cream and cookies. I don’t think we went to bed before 7am the whole weekend, and I certainly had more than one hangover!! Then, on Tuesday I made two new friends, and was invited out to dinner on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and am off out again shortly. These were not the drunken excuses for supra that I have previously experienced, but proper supra, with toasts given from the heart, with really tasty food, and proper, top notch wine, and singing traditional songs. And I am now wondering whether I have just been unlucky, because I only now understand why people have been saying that Georgian food is tasty, because this is not the food I was given previously!!! It was a real honour to be invited into people’s hearts and families, and to share these amazing experiences with them, and at the same time, it makes me a little sad, that so many others I know, have not experienced this level of hospitality, and will leave Georgia in a month’s time having never encountered such warm people or good food.
So, a ‘Supra’ is basically a Georgian feast, and is led by a toast master or ‘Tamada’. Everyone sits around the table and helps themselves to food as and when they want, – very different from British politeness and waiting to be served or waiting for others to start eating before you eat yours. This is something I still find difficult to do, and feels really rude for me, but I am slowly becoming accustomed to this. Everybody eats and talks, and eats and talks. At short intervals, the Tamada will make a toast, and everyone will say ‘gamarjos’ or ‘cheers’ to this, whilst clinking glasses. In Georgian toasts, only the men stand, but they only stand when Tamada stands, and women never stand.
There is a certain order to the toasts, but I still don’t really know how this goes. But toasts will generally include one for the person’s birthday, or for Easter, or whatever the occasion. One for the guests, one for the host and their family, one for dead people, one for the living, one for the children, one for Georgia and the country of the guests, one for friends, one for health, and so forth. During this toast, it is important not to have your glass higher than the other person’s glass you are clinking, so, for example, if a male is clinking glasses with a female, he will be submissive and his glass will be lower than the lady’s, as a sign of respect, to show that he does not think he is the best. One must NEVER toast with an empty glass or with a soft drink, and one’s glass must ALWAYS be full! It is usual to drink the entire contents of the glass at each toast, but foreigners and women do not have to follow this rule thankfully. Which is lucky, because Georgian wine is most odd, and has a tendency to make you feel completely fine, and then all of a sudden you feel really, really drunk! It is not acceptable to be seen as drunk, especially for women. Almost every home makes its own wine, or is given a supply by family members in the villages, and you will often find vines growing on the balcony or in the ezo (courtyard).
Red Eggs and Handro
The Easter feast is even more important than other feasts, because it marks the end of fasting for lent, especially for Orthodox Christians. The night before, people will go to church all night, from about midnight until 7am or 8am in the morning. They then come home, sleep a little, and on Easter Sunday in the evening, they have their supra, enjoying all the foods they gave up for lent (meat, dairy, oil, sweets). Prior to this they will hard boil eggs and dye them red using the roots of plant called ‘handro’. These represent the blood of Christ, and people will have little competitions, rather like a game of conkers, to see which egg is the best egg. You can see this ‘handro’ for sale on street corners, looking rather like little brownish-red twigs tied up in a bundle, for just a lari or so. This makes the eggs bright red or port wine coloured. Also on Easter Sunday, people look forward to eating the special Easter cake or ‘paska’, which is basically like the Italian panettone that is traditionally eaten at Christmas. Surprisingly, this ‘paska’ varies quite a lot, as I discovered at school when each teacher brought in the leftover ‘paska’ to the teacher’s room! It is pretty delicious on the whole, and a really nice change from the typical Georgian diet. I did really miss the Easter bunnies and chocolate though, so I think this addition would make for an amazing Georgian Easter in the future!! And like many Georgian meals, there is always a jar of home made ‘gemali’ on the table. A kind of sauce or ketchup, made from plums or other fruits, with a bit of a sour taste to it, which Georgians seem to enjoy with their friend potatoes.
On Easter Monday, families traditionally visit the cemetery, and sit at tables between the gravestones, and have another supra in memory of those people who died. They light candles, and smash the red eggs, leaving them on graves, and pouring wine on the ground. They also eat and drink together and make toasts.
For me, the proper supra, now has a real emotional value to it, especially when shared with friends or family (and after a few glasses of strong wine!). This weekend, saw probably the best supra I have ever been to, and also followed a really difficult period in my life and made my friendships even more important. Georgia has changed me so much, and everyday a little piece of me is transformed (I could almost say ‘healed’) somehow. In my previous life, I never had any free time. I was also working or studying, or taking exams, I rarely had weekends free, or Christmas, and I certainly never had time to meet friends for coffee, or sufficient funds to enable me to do this. But in Georgia, family and friends are considered the most important thing in life, and its perfectly acceptable to form good relationships with the people you work with.
This is such an alien concept to me, coming from a rather cold and emotionless society where we are not encouraged to express emotion or to say how we feel. Somehow, I always felt awkward in my own society, that I never really fit in, even with my family, no matter how much I loved them. Yet, in Georgia I feel I have so much more freedom and I feel human for the first time in my life. If I see a child in the street who is crying or has fallen, its perfectly acceptable to stop and assist them or pat them on the head to comfort them, without fear of being accused of molesting them or feeling guilty or weak for being ‘sucked in’ to help them. If I want to tap my friend’s arm to show empathy, I can do so, without fear of reprimand or her feeling that I am making a move on her or that I am crossing some professional boundary.
Again, this is something that I still find difficult to get used to, as Georgians are very touchy feely, and have an entirely different sense of appropriateness and personal space! I think this warmth and closeness is most evident in the street, as men will walk along holding hands or arm in arm with other men, and women will also hold hands with other women. The boundaries here are very different, and I know its something that many of us ‘volunteers’ or ‘teachers’ have been both confused and curious about since arriving in Georgia. Its pretty mind boggling at times, and so many volunteers have had awkward encounters related to physical closeness, almost questioning the intentions of the other person, even if they are of the same sex, because Georgians often behave towards each other in ways which we westerners would consider to be intimate, that you would normally only encounter in a more sexual relationship.
But they are perfectly innocent, its just down to expectations and the motives behind the actions, but it has led to some tricky situations for many volunteers, who are surprised to find themselves suddenly questioning their own sexuality or that of the people around them! This is something that we didn’t really broach in our cultural training, and that is more of an issue the longer you are here as your friendships develop. I know that when I first arrived, I found many of my host family’s behaviours strange, but on reflection, they were entirely normal, and I must have seemed very, very odd to them! And its funny for me to understand this now. That I have come from a family in England where we don’t even hug each other when we have not seen each other for months, yet in Georgia I would no longer feel awkward or be surprised at sharing a bed with my host family if need arose, whereas before, this completely freaked me out!! Its also something that I battled with throughout my life, as I always craved physical closeness from my family in England, yet I never even held my parents hands as a child, never kissed them goodnight, and certainly never sat on their knee or gave them hugs. I always thought there was something wrong with me for wanting this closeness or some sign of affection, but it was normal for my generation and upbringing, it was about making you strong and independent, so that you could survive the harsh world around you. To be affectionate was a sign of weakness and was against the attitude of the ‘stiff lip’. This is not just a British thing, but other volunteers from other countries have said the same thing, and its sad to think that so many children go through life like this, when its actually pretty normal for children to be shown affection. This is fundamental to my being in Georgia, because it makes me remember that I am not just here to fix the education system and to replicate what my culture expects of schools and children, but I am also here, more importantly, to learn from Georgians, and to take back the best things of the culture, like children being allowed to run around and to be kids, and for children to be shown affection and so forth. I really wonder how much better society in Britain would be, if children showed the same warmth and affection towards each other as Georgian children do! This is something I am really learning from the older children at school, in my 11th and 12th grade, and is something I have been giving a lot of thought to this week.
It is also playing on my mind, because I watched a pretty poignant film at the weekend with my friend from Britain. The film is called ‘Kidulthood’ and is about London schools and gangs. It’s a really powerful film, with a lot of violence and disturbing scenes. I would really like to show it to my older kids at school who have been asking me recently about what school is like in England. They have this impression that everything is great and all light and roses, but it was a surprise to me, to realise that this film is so similar to my experiences at school and the peer pressures that I was faced with. Its really disturbing to realise that this film is probably too much or would be too difficult for the kids in my school to see, and it puts me in a mini moral dilemma. If I show them the film, they will lose the rose tinted glasses about Britain and about schools there, and obviously it is not representative of all schools in Britain, and this might do them some good to see just how lucky and privileged they really are. But on the other hand, it could damage them emotionally, and maybe they are not ready to see such a thing, and I would have to explain all the bad words and street language. But this is the language of the youth, this is how the culture speaks and even behaves, and to survive in Britain, they should know this stuff. I have the same dilemma as my family……do I protect them (like showing affection or giving them warmth which might make them stronger people), or do I expose them (by being cold, and getting them used to the real world!)??? If I can find a clip, I will insert one here, because its something that I want all Georgians to see, in order to understand my background and why British people are the way we are, and to see just how alien Georgian culture feels to us. For example, at my school, you would be bullied for being a virgin, and people would physically beat you and taunt you in front of the class, and you would never ever admit to being a virgin. Yet in Georgia, people are proud to have no sex before marriage, and it is seen as shameful if you are not a virgin. This is one thing I have found with my 11th and 12th graders and is something that has really surprised me, especially given the lack of sex education at school. I would love to know what other people think about this issue, and how their school life was in relation to this. My schools were considered relatively good schools but we still had deaths, and one of my teachers died after being stabbed by a pupil, and another friend killed themself by sniffing gas canisters, and I have known several friends who have attempted to commit suicide, it was just the way things were, you were either a survivor or you weren’t. Learning more about Georgia and speaking to Georgians about their experiences, has really brought these topics to my attention, and is something I would love to learn more about and to process to understand more about my own culture.
On Being British
So anyway, I wanted to tell you more about the supra at Easter. I am starting to realise that British people are really ashamed of standing out from the crowd, and I know, that I feel really awkward and uncomfortable when I am asked to give a toast, to sing, to play music, or to talk aloud about things. I am not particularly shy, but I think it is something grilled into us from a young age that it is just not cool to display yourself in public, regardless of whether or not you are talented or have the right answer. At school, I hated giving presentations or standing in front of an audience, and my class mates were just the same. Everyone hated the kid who put his hand up to answer a question in class, and it was the one thing you could try and avoid if you didn’t want to get bullied. I don’t believe that I was bullied more than any other child, in fact I think I got away pretty lightly, especially considering that I was from a poor family, never had the right clothes, and was small. Yet, I can recount at least five occasions throughout my life where I was beaten up or bullied because a teacher paid me a compliment or because I answered a question in class. When I was seven years old, I made the decision that I would no longer attend school unless I was moved to another school, because I knew even at that age, that if I continued going there, this one particular child, a troubled boy called George, who had been expelled from a ridiculous number of schools, would certainly kill me. I think it was at the point that he tried to tie me to a tree and wanted to set fire to me that I knew something had to be done, because none of the adults was doing anything about the situation and they were all afraid of him. I was not afraid of him as it turned out, but I was afraid that I would kill him by accident if he continued to beat me up, and I had enough problems in my life without dealing with him as well. So, I moved schools, and continued to be bullied, but in a more socially tolerable way, just as many others in my class were!
I don’t feel especially scarred from my experiences, and it certainly made me a lot tougher in some ways, but maybe more sensitive in others, especially when times are hard and you are faced with what seem like insurmountable problems. But, what I have really noticed recently, is that Georgians are not shy or afraid to put themselves in the spotlight, to sing, to play the guitar, to admit to liking Shakespeare or to retell poems. In class, the students fight for the teachers attention, waving little hands in the air and crying out ‘mas, mas mas’ (teacher, teacher, teacher). And this is where our cultures clash somewhat, because I (and others I have spoken to) find that ourselves feeling really awkward and embarrassed when Georgians ask us to sing with them, or when they play music to us and try to look us in the eye whilst performing. We find ourselves squirming in the chair, and smiling, and I often wonder whether Georgians think we are not taking them seriously, or feel that we are laughing at them?? But, it is purely because we don’t know how to react. The same as when Georgians pay us a compliment or make a toast to us during supra or ask us to say something as a toast, about love or friendship, or some other topic that we would never normally talk about. Its something that I love in Georgia, regardless of whether it is said out of politeness or is genuine, I am slowly getting used to accepting compliments, but sometimes it is still really, really awkward. For instance, it is fairly typical for strangers, for host family, for my colleagues or boss at school to say ‘chemi kargi gogo’, which means ‘my good girl’. I have only ever received negative comments throughout my life, from close family members, yet in Georgia, even relative strangers say nice things about me. My children at school make me cards and give me hugs every lesson just because they are happy to see me, but I still feel awkward, and I must look to be really ungrateful, even when I try really hard to show how pleased I am. My Co-teacher is excellent at this, and compensates for my lack of apparent enthusiasm, and I really hope that I can learn from her how to be more expressive in my happiness. I know the kids spent hours making the most amazing posters for my lessons, and all I did was give them a good mark, I just couldn’t convey how touched or happy I was at how much they had done. I must look really cold to them!! Yet, when I went back to Britain over the Christmas period, I scared my family by accidentally being tactile and showing emotion or expressing sentiments, and it was the most awful and uncomfortable feeling ever, like I had insulted them, and I realised that I now fit into my own culture even less…..that Georgia has changed me without my really noticing it before.
On Music and Songs
It actually makes me really sad, because I am sure that Brits were not always like this. I have visited so many countries where I have heard traditional songs and lullabies, and songs that tell a story, and whenever I am asked to share a song from my own culture, I am ashamed, because we just have nothing the same. Georgia has the most beautiful lullabies, and I will put some clips in here so you can listen for yourself. But, the only lullaby I know is ‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’!! Hardly the same!
And so it was, that I was at my Easter supra, and the whole family started to sing. Every generation added their layer to the song, creating something so big and so full of energy and strength, and I realised that this is why I love Georgia and Georgian people so much. Even when they have nothing and when times are tough, they have something so special, and so primitive, which sadly we in the UK have lost and that even my grandmother does not understand and cannot relate to. People in the UK may have fancy homes and cars, and the children in school may aspire for this kind of lifestyle, but in many ways, I really hope that Georgians don’t lose this uniqueness and special quality. It is the most valuable asset a person can have, worth more than anything else in the world, and is the thing that I have spent my life longing for, and which I have always aspired for. A sense of feeling like a human being, of being complete, of being connected to others and to a history or culture of generations gone before. And, I realised that this is why I feel so emotional every time I hear a Georgian song or person singing. It is just the same experience as when I used to go caving, its something primitive and raw, that connects you to the earth and to mankind, and makes you feel alive. Just as in supra, when wine is spilt accidentally, it is said that it is because you are connected to the earth at that particular moment in time, that there is a reason why the earth wants this wine. Its something that I think many people who have not been to a supra will fail to understand, as from the outside it just looks like a good excuse to get drunk, but when you are with friends and are truly welcomed, the supra is such a different experience, and its easy to get caught up in the moment.
For me, it was a strange event. On the one hand so happy and pleasant, because I felt I had gained so many positives since being in Georgia. On the other hand so sad, because of what I have missed all of my life. On the one hand a stranger and a foreigner, and on the other hand feeling so welcomed and accepted and at one with the world. Its always like this, and is always really emotional to hear Georgians sing in their special polyphonic voice, about love and life, and the basic elements that are sadly overlooked these days. Its always difficult, because I am stuck in British awkwardness, but at the same time, I really want to be able to participate in these songs and to be more confident and less ashamed. If Georgia can teach me just one thing, just one life skill whilst I am here, then this would be it, as with this, anything in life is possible. I know that for me, friendships will be my biggest challenge, because Georgians are far closer physically and emotionally than what I am accustomed to, and this requires a whole new level of trust from me. Combined with the obvious language barrier and cultural differences. And also because I know that once I have changed, there will be no going back, and my relationships in Britain will never be the same again, so it is a really big risk emotionally, but equally, could be the most fulfilling risk of my life.
Even the word for friend, has a significance: ‘megobari’. It comes from the word for ‘trough’ where animals eat together in peace, where they share their food, and means that you will eat snout to snout, with no fear of being bitten or injured in the process. And this is how Georgians generally see friendship, that you don’t have doubts about who is your true friend, that you will share everything. And it occurred to me that this is what I always experienced on expeditions in remote places, and is something I always felt frustrated with in the UK, that not many people really understood. That on expedition, you are only as strong as the weakest member, and that is why you look after each other, because together you have a bigger skills pool, but if one person is struggling they put everyone’s life in danger. Its fundamental and oh so simple, but is sadly so rarely understood in the general population. Its something I always love talking to explorers about, and is something that enables them to succeed in their toughest days and challenges. For Roz, she has had a really tough week this week, having to return to shore just a few weeks into her row across the Indian Ocean, but I know this won’t stop her, and she has everyone behind her and rooting for her.
Well…I think this is my longest blog so far, I’m looking forward to reading these retrospectively and seeing how my life has turned out!!