I have always said that Georgia is a land of contrasts, from decrepit vehicles and buildings, to flashy new cars and fantastic new architecture, from a diet of bread and khajapuri to a rainbow coloured spread of tasty dishes. And so it is that, some of the people in Georgia are currently protesting in Tbilisi and calling for the resignation of the President, because they are fed up with living in poverty and hunger and of being unemployed.
I have experienced a little taste of this myself, from the village life in Vale, where we often had no electricity or water and lived on old bread, to my life in Vake, the Beverly Hills of Georgia, where my host family thought nothing of buying expensive new clothes or visiting the beauty parlour every day. Like every country in the world, you will always have those who live on either side of the bread line, there are those who love the President, and there are those who hate him with a passion, just as it was in the UK prior to our referendum, and the same in all other democratic countries.
Its made for a really, rather surreal week to be honest, full of both highs and lows, if you can call them that. On the one hand, I am having the most amazing life in Georgia. I feel as if I am in love with the country, and I have no desire to leave EVER, EVER, EVER. I love teaching, I love the new friendships I am developing, and it feels like a land of opportunity, freedom, and promise, especially in comparison to my previous life. That is not to say that I am living with life through rose tinted glasses. Far from it. Everyday, I am faced with challenges, and as a foreigner, some things I see really upset me, and I am clueless as to what to do about them.
Things that Make Me Sad about Life in Georgia
For example, there is a population of gypsies living and working on the streets of Tbilisi, I have seen them injure, shake, and shout at their tiny children, and they force them to beg for money on the street, or to lie on the ground and pretend to be sleeping, for hours on end. I have seen the gypsy kids run up to and grab hold of foreign men’s legs in the hopes that they will get money, and I know of some children in my school, whose fathers have tried to sell them to foreigners. Just yesterday, as I was walking to school, I saw a gypsy mother push her child into the street in the path of an oncoming car. Two days ago, I saw another mother smash her toddlers head against the hard ground, and whilst in a café in Sabartalo this week, a 2 year old, filthy little, speck of a boy came into the café and asked customers for money, before being thrown out and shooed away as if he were a stray dog or rat. This is not just sensationalism or rumour, this is fact. Some of my kids at school, have lost family members who have been murdered (abroad, not in Georgia), and some are being brought up by relatives because they have lost their parents or family are working abroad. This is not normal for Georgia, and is frowned upon in general, but it’s sadly a fact of life. But, its not something new to me, and I have witnessed similar things in Chennai (Madras) in India and in Quito in Equador, amongst other places, and in India, infanticide was something I had to get my head around when working in maternal and child health.
A few days ago, whilst waiting for a lift to go to dinner, I saw a really friendly dog, weary and hungry, just wanting to stop and rest in the street, but being continuously moved on by shopkeepers. He had the biggest, saddest eyes I have ever seen, and the worst mange and matted fur, so bad that he was having trouble walking on his back legs. If I had a place of my own or money, I would have adopted him there and then, treated him, and found him a new home. And if I see him again, I have every intention of adopting him and taking him to the vet to vaccinate him against rabies and the likes. My dog lives like a princess in comparison to some of these street dogs, and it makes me really sad and confused, that some of the warmest, most kind people I have ever met in the world, can go through life everyday and to see these children and stray animals, and to ignore them and pretend like they don’t exist. They actually seem to hate them, and are afraid of them, and it is really baffling to me as a foreigner, and coming from a country where we have charities and government authorities in place to look after such children and animals who are ‘at risk’.
What makes me especially sad with the gypsy children, is the potential market here for child trafficking, and snatching, and that I can’t imagine these parents being especially upset for anything other than the loss of their ‘little worker’. A few years ago, the whole of Britain was devastated by the snatching of the three year old girl Madelaine McCain, from her hotel room in Portugal, where her parents were on holiday from Britain. She has still not been found, and her parents, who are doctors in Liverpool and who also have twins, have spent millions of pounds on private detectives and appeals, along with the government and the British Public, to try and find their daughter. Yet, who is there for these children? Who has their interests at heart?
For all I know, there may be agencies and NGOs out there, who work with the street children, and who are also working with the stray animals in the city, and I hope to God that there are, but if there are then I wish they would make themselves known so that others might be able to take a part and to support their work. When I first came to Georgia, I wanted to be a part of Baby House orphanage in Tbilisi, to help raise funds for them, and to set up a buddy system or to work with the children, in the same way I had done in the Caribbean when I lived there. But so far, it has been extremely difficult to get an ‘in’, and despite all the help I have received from contacts and lawyers in America. It seems ridiculous to me, that so many volunteer teachers here, want to get involved in local projects and to put something into the system, and for free, but that for the most part, it is seemingly impossible, especially with the language barriers.
On Life in the Caribbean
When I lived in the West Indies, I worked closely with the orphanage and we set up a group of vets and medical students who would take the children to the beach every Saturday, sit with them, hold them, talk to them, make eye contact, and play with them. Many were electively mute, or unstimulated, or had learning difficulties, and we used to take our dogs with us so the children could stroke them and get used to physical contact, and have a connection with another living creature. My dog, used to love this, and was extremely gentle, partly because she was trained as a therapy dog to visit patients in the hospital, and to sit with them quietly to give comfort. In the UK, every hospital I worked in had a designated team of PAT dogs (Pet Assisted Therapy), who would visit patients on the wards and provide them with some distraction from their illness and the clinical environment. With the orphans, we raised money through cake sales and pet pageants to buy the orphanage a television, to buy pens and paper, medicines, nappies (diapers for you Americans), and to pay for any surgery they needed. My hospital in the UK, donated things for me to give them, and we asked all the students on the island to donate their old clothes and items for the children, who were really self conscious about how they looked and thought that everyone on the island knew they were an orphan. We did a special drive to provide bras for the older girls, because they had nothing and were ashamed, and we set up a buddy system, visiting the orphanage as often as possible and working with our ‘buddies’ to help them with homework, reading, and writing. It was beneficial for both parties, and extremely good fun. I had wanted to do something here, but I am now 8 months into life here, and feel like I have made absolutely no progress at all.
What is sad, is that I know so many people who are childless, and who desperately want a child, or want to adopt, but Georgia is strangely one of the hardest countries in the world to adopt from because the government wants the children to remain in their homeland and to have native Georgian families, which is also completely understandable. But, at the same time, its hard to see children, like the gypsy children, being brought up in this way, and with no prospects, when they could have such a different life elsewhere. And not just the gypsy children, but I have seen many Georgian children, on the metro on the way home, or on my walk to and from school, sat with their grandmother or grandfather for the entire day, begging. These children should be at school, getting an education, and a future, not spending the day in the dust and dirt, and with nothing to do, and no play or entertainment. I have no doubt that these particular children are loved and that their family also wants a different life for them, but it makes me sad that the children should be involved in earning money just to buy food to survive, and is something you would never see in the UK or in America. Many people do give them money, and perhaps they even earn more money through begging than they would in a more ‘regular’ job, but it still seems sad that this should be their only way. Especially when the people begging are young men, who should really be working for a living, and not just sitting on the side of the pavement longingly. With so many problems with infrastructure and the likes, you would think that someone could employ them for the day, for a decent wage? And I wonder whether these are the result of an education system whereby some children are happy just to sit in class, talk to their friends all day, and not study, as some of my older students do???
Are there Really Dark Times Ahead, or is it Just the Sensationalist Press?
On the topic of contrasts, I have never felt so in extremes as I have been this week, and it’s a new experience to me, and all a part of adapting to life in a new country. I have a feeling of foreboding, yet I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. I have had the most amazing week at school, but I was sad that so many of my children and teachers were missing because of fear and logistics related to the opposition protests going on just ten or fifteen minutes walk away from my school. My twelfth graders had exams this week, and I wonder which they were most worried about?? Exams, or the tanks rolling along the street? But, maybe this is also routine for them, having grown up in Georgia? For me it is not usual, but at the same time, I also do not feel afraid and I am not especially anxious. In school, it is easy to forget about what is going on, but when I walk home from school and closer to where the protests are occurring, its like a reality check. I walk past my old street, and all the familiar landmarks, to give my private lessons, and I can easily get accidentally caught up in a crowd of protesters who are walking along the street, most of them very peacefully. I have to walk this way home, and I continue to go about my everyday life, but its strange to then see the news reports and stories from my relatives in other countries.
For the most part, what I have seen for myself has been pretty peaceful, but last night the tone changed for the worst, and I wonder how this will affect me for the last two or three weeks at school. Will any children turn up tomorrow? Am I potentially putting myself at risk? No one has really informed me of anything or of any risks, including the British Embassy, but if I was in the UK, I would definitely make a point of steering clear of any large groups of people, because I know how easily things can go from peaceful to full blown fights and riots. Am I an idiot for being so in love with a country that is still alien to me, and which I have no fundamental connection to?
In the daytime, the sun has been shining, and its starting to get pretty hot in the day now, to the point where people are now in t-shirts and cropped trousers for work, and my kids are just wearing shorts and t-shirts to school….a stark contrast to the hats and gloves of just a few months ago, before I realised that my children actually had faces and hair, and fingers! Now they have skinny little legs and arms too, and are looking much less vampire like now they have had the sun on their skins.
People are enjoying the sunshine, eating ice creams, and drinking beers and coffee in the numerous little coffee spots which have miraculously appeared over night. In fact, this was the first sign that worried me yesterday, as many of the café’s took down their umbrellas and moved the chairs and tables, sensibly given the troubles of last night.
It was strange to wake up this morning, to a public holiday to mark ‘Independence Day’, and to see television for the first time in months, and to see hospital scenes and images of the apparent violence from last night’s riots. I am actually surprised that anything happened last night, given the weather that we had, and it’s a certain indication of how strong these people feel, if they were prepared to be out in such awful weather.
I have never been particularly religious, but last night was the closest I have ever come to an epiphany (almost entirely brought on by the weather, and feeling a little ‘off colour’ the past few days!). For those of you who are not familiar or who have forgotten, there once lived a man by the name of Noah. God spoke to him and warned him of floods, and asked him to take one pair of every animal species and to build a boat (ark). Most of us at primary school, grew up knowing the words to the tune ‘ the animals came marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah” and probably some other lines about them having a poo, etc. But many of you may not be aware of the connection between this story and Georgia.
Georgia is a very old country, probably going back to the dawn of time, and the mountain where Noah ‘parked’ his boat was in the Caucasus mountains. Georgians also claim to be direct descendants of Noah’s great-grandson Karthlos, hence the Georgian name for ‘Georgia’ is ‘Sakhartvelo’. Somehow, history (and by default religion) always has more significance, when you can understand the location, geography, fauna, and flora of the stories that you learnt about as a child. When I was a kid (about 5 years old), I used to run away from home to be a part of a ‘good news club’ at my local church, but to the disgust of my parents who were embarrassed at my love of ‘God’ and of my aspiration to become a nun when I grew up!
I used to spend hours in the garden ‘saving’ earwigs from puddles, and being kind to the flowers and to snails and snakes, and anything that crossed my path. Although to be honest, I probably did more harm than good, because every time I found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest, my treatment was to wrap it in a blanket, put it near the fire, and to feed it whatever food I could find, and they always died! After that, I wanted to be a banker, which my grandfather informed me was a poor choice of career because banks would all be computerised by the time I grew up, and after that I wanted to be an embalmer and funeral director, which my careers advisor at school informed me would not be possible because for that you had to be good at science! I have never forgiven my careers teacher for that, especially with so many funeral directors in the family! So instead, I worked as an Outdoor Education Instructor with people who were disabled or disadvantaged, and trained with my local Mountain Rescue Team in my spare time, which lead to my interest in acquired brain injuries. This lead to my becoming a Neuropsychologist, and later Medicine, and to my work as a Diver Medic Technician on Film Productions, and rather randomly….teaching, and I now have the perfect combination of all of my interests!
But my point is, that, when I was a child at the ‘good news club’, it was the stories from the Bible that I loved, because I wanted to hear about the world, about lions, about fire, and trees, and about people. I had no idea that it was based on real places or people, it was just a book with really cool stories in it, with good morals to them, and about people who were kind, and where baddies always got their comeuppance. But, now I am in Georgia, I am discovering that these places really did exist, and it gives a more realistic edge to things, that they make more sense in their context and environment.
And so, yesterday, it dawned on me, just how likely it actually is to be caught in a flood, that with the media we now have, we can understand and even watch footage about Tsunamis, that before, would have had no relation to anything in our everyday world. A big wave that comes and sweeps away almost entire countries….yeah, right..whatever!
I previously found it funny how Georgian people are afraid of rain, and as a Brit, this made no sense to me whatsoever, especially since most of Georgia is mountainous and not by a big ocean. I come from an island for God’s sake, an island where we have rain most days, and I am not so bothered by it! But, whilst sitting on the terrace close to my school with friends last night having dinner, I had my epiphany when it started to rain, after I had been enjoying a beautiful lightning storm for several hours. We rushed to the car, and as often happens in Georgia, when you have no plans, we were unexpectedly and very kindly invited for a supra in the district of Temka. We drove past areas where the protests had been occurring, and gave them little thought, and were suddenly very surprised to drive into an area, almost knee high with big hail stones, and to drive through floods of water. Many cars, had stalled, and some had crashed into each other, and it was as if we were instead driving along a river bed. Where on earth had all this water come from??? Surely not from the rain or the thunder storm??? How can so much rain fall in such a short space of time, and how can a scorching hot day suddenly be filled with big balls of ice?? Its hard to get my message across here, at just how surprised I was, and still am…..but I have never experienced anything like this in my life! Not in the rainforests, which are called so because of the high humidity, levels of rain, flooding, and thunder storms, and even when I was in India during the monsoon, it was not like this!
Suddenly I remembered the story about Noah and his ark, and I realised how specific this story is to this region of the world, and how much more plausible it seems for people to believe in such miracles and climatic events, like plagues of locusts. I remembered the story about Nino in Mtskheta, when she ‘caused’ the moon to eclipse over the sun, and how much more likely it would be for these events to happen and for people to believe the significance behind them, and suddenly I felt that I understood why Georgians have such a strong orthodox faith and why their icons and beliefs are so important to them. Not because I am becoming religious per se, but because, they seem more plausible given the correct surroundings.
I was pretty tired, and still feeling ‘under the weather’ a bit, after the last few days, but the combination of the bad weather, thunder storms, and protests in the city, also helped me to understand the people a little more and why I love them so much. We had a power cut during the supra, and as always, there were candles on hand, and everything continued as planned, and the event was actually enhanced by the lack of light, rather than ruined. If this happened in the UK, people would generally say that the evening was ruined because of the lack of electricity and lighting, but I have always found myself to be against the grain or at odds with my British peers because of this, because to me, it is always the people that are the most important ingredient to any social event.
We talked a little about childhood and what it was like to grow up in Tbilisi during Soviet Times, and it was not dissimilar to my life in Vale, and doing my lesson plans by candle light. I loved the intimacy of life by candle light, and I still really miss my family there, and how close we became in really just a short space of time, and coming from two very different cultures. They had nothing, but I never felt that I missed out, and I never wanted for anything, although I do really appreciate how lucky I am to be able to take a shower now whenever I want, and to be able to eat pretty much anything I want. I often wish I could organise an exchange for the students from my school in Vale and my school in Vake because they really represent the two faces of modern Georgia….those who have everything, and those who have nothing, both materialistically and also emotionally.
Its been a really good week for me in one way, but also a little challenging in other ways. I have been offered a place on a PGCE course in the UK (which I won’t be accepting), and news of the protests has reached my family and friends abroad. They think I am crazy to stay here, and that I have a death wish to be living in such a volatile country. I have had stories of ‘I told you so’ from people who were scared about me coming to Georgia because of the volatile history. And whilst I do have some worries about the stability of my job right now, I also have no intention to leave, and it is hard for me to merge the two very different sides of life here, between protests and friendships. My friendships and relationships in Britain and abroad, have been pushed to breaking point over my being in Georgia, and I have paid a high price for being here in some ways. But I have no regrets at all, and I feel more satisfied with life than ever before.
Its hard for me to be the cause of such problems at ‘home’, and I sense an even bigger divide between myself and the people who only see the BBC or other news reports about the situation in Georgia. Most of them would be horrified to hear how close my school is to where the trouble is, and will make them feel that I am even more crazy to have really and effectively, ‘fallen in love’ with Georgia. I also have to question my own sanity, especially with friends here leaving the country soon, and now that I am starting to say goodbye to people who I know I will never see again.
I have found relationships to be one of the most challenging, and also satisfying things during my time in Georgia. I am constantly pushed by them, hurt by them, and fulfilled by them. And sometimes it feels a little like being on a roller coaster ride. Emotionally, the stakes are much higher than any British style relationship, and the cultural differences sometimes make things really difficult, especially when communication is misunderstood or actions are misinterpreted. Ironically, I am finding relationships with Georgian people to be so much easier than my relationships with foreigners, even people from my own country, because the rules and etiquettes are very different, and I feel I have become a little more Georgian than I am British now. I have adapted, and am spending more time in the company of Georgians, and when I spend time with ‘my own kind’, its now really hard to readjust or to go back to my old ways.
I think this has been more challenging recently, because for one reason or another, many of my Georgian friends have been experiencing difficult times this past week, with the death of a loved one, with illness, or with life changing decisions. People have started to confide in me more, and my relationships with many Georgians has moved to a different level now, especially now people know that I plan to stay here, and we have been out more socially. The rules are different now, and its easier for me to argue, especially when I don’t want to do something. Like moving from ‘being hosted’ to becoming a family member, and now I have lost my British reserve of politeness too. I am no longer afraid to said ‘give me’ instead of ‘would you mind terribly if you gave me’…!! I can say ‘I want’ now, rather than the British ‘I would like’, and I am starting to understand the language more, and to play a bigger role in my local community and social circles, which I really love. I no longer feel like an outsider looking in.
Whenever I have had problems, or even the slightest little things happen that are not to plan, and where previously I would feel myself starting to feel down. Its like the Georgian God’s step in, and I will get a text message or a phone call, and people are more intuitive and pay attention to my needs, and they want to know what they can do to help me, and I no longer feel that there is a conditional clause attached. In Britain, I was always afraid of receiving help from anyone (even though it was rarely offered in such a way), because I always knew I would be beholden to them for the rest of my life. But, in Georgia, it is a normal part of life and friendship, and is not so conditional. And its funny now, because when my friends are sad or are having a problem, its like it affects me too. That their pain is my pain, and that whatever they feel, I feel too. I never really understood it before, but recently it has started to make more sense. It’s the same for the people I work with at school, the people I know socially, and all of my friends, and is starting to highlight the real divide that I am starting to have with my foreign friends who are only hanging out with other volunteers and are not hanging out with Georgians, and sometimes this frustrates me. This is all a part of change though, and of the adaptation process, and I have learnt to go with it rather than to fight it. Its still scary and a big deal for me to invest so much in my relationships here, but its also extremely rewarding, and has brought a whole level of meaning to my life and I wouldn’t change it, no matter how much work it involves or how hard it is emotionally.
And so, I want to end today’s blog with a song by Alicia Keys, which I heard today for the first time since October (when I flew to Georgia for the first time and it was playing on the aeroplane when we landed in Tbilisi!), and that I really want to dedicate to my new found Georgian friends (and non Georgian friends of old, though they will think I have gone soft, and will take the piss out of me for being so sentimental). So many of my friends have been having a tough time this week, and things have been frustrating, or not going to plan, or they are tired, or sick, or have lost someone recently, and I want them to know how much they mean to me, and how happy I am that I have had the chance to meet them. A lot of my teachers from school, live in and around Vera and Sololaki districts, and I know they are sleep deprived from the demonstrations outside their homes at the moment, and are feeling stressed, but they have still found time to call me and say hello, because they are worried I will be scared about the current political situation. Life took a strange turn for me last year, and it was a really difficult time, one of the hardest in my life, but looking back now, I would not change it for the world, because I would never have found Georgia, and the most amazing and warmest people in the world. So this song is also for Georgia, because I know that no matter how cold or difficult things seem right now, the future will be great, and through adversity and times of trouble, relationships and appreciation of good times, only increases, and makes life better…….