Down, but by No Means Out!

Days Like These…

Its been a bit of a down day today. I’m tired and low on energy. But I’m not worried. In fact, I have learnt that it is days like these where you find that through adversity, you end up achieving greater things in the longer term. It means you have something to blog about, and something to feel proud of when you reflect on it, having overcome whatever obstacle it was that you were facing. Apart from which, down days give you a chance to stop and reflect, make changes and improvements, and to grow as a person. Fortunately for me, such days are not so common, and best of all, I know that they are simply transient. With luck, the mood will lift as quickly as it appeared.

But it is strange on these days, and being in another country makes such days have even more impact. You not only think about what you are doing wasting your time and energy in a particular job or whatever, but you also have the added doubts of whether you are doing the right thing by being in another country having left your own, your loved ones, your more familiar cultural values and belief system, and everything you know and have grown up with. More so, when you know that you have not only uprooted your own life, but that of your family, pets, or whoever else is the most important to you wherever you are. Even more frustrating is that feeling that even though everything intellectually is telling you to get the heck out of there pronto, you know that you can’t, even if it is the best thing for you to do. Because, somewhere inside of you, your gut feeling, is just telling you that you did make the right decision and that everything will be ok, that the moment will pass. Its hard to leave somewhere or to comprehend the practical and logical reasons against your decision to stay, when you know in your heart of hearts, that you feel at home and that a part of your soul loves the people, country, job, children, or whatever. Its a massive risk. To follow your heart when everything around you looks to be falling apart about your ears.

Why Georgia, why? Rato? Rato?

And that is the problem facing me today, and not for the first, and I doubt not the last time either. The thing is, that no matter how frustrating and angry I sometimes feel living in Georgia, I know that the reality is that if I went back to Britain, then I would be homesick for Georgia, and I would hate being back in Britain. So instead, I am in this kind of weird limbo!!! I hate the social etiquette of Britain, the rules, and legislation, the lack of freedom, and being stifled continually. I hate that I would have to work 50 hours a week just to pay my rent, that I wouldn’t have time for friends or family, and that in many ways, I just wouldn’t have the quality of life that I have here. Its like Georgia is my mother, and I’m attached by some kind of invisible umbilical cord having searched for a place like this all of my life. Having searched for a place where I feel as if I fit in, where I tick the box, where I can be a human being, where I am allowed to live a life, where I don’t have to feel guilty all the time for being human. I like being able to go out for coffee at 2am, and I love being able to have variety in my life, and I have all of that here, even though there are lots of things that I do miss.

The Walk Home and the Zoo…

I decided to walk home from school today as I needed a bit of space and fresh air. I thought the endorphins from walking might cheer me up a bit. It didn’t work. To get home, I have to pass the ‘zoo’. Its a really sad place, and if I had a million pounds, it would be the first thing that I would fix. Bears pacing back and forth in pens that are nowhere near big enough, no stimulation, nowhere to exercise, and tigers who look really depressed as they sit in their pens right next to the motorway and traffic. Hardly surprising for a zoo which charges the entrance fee of about 5pence per person. I’m sure the zoo keepers do their best, and to their credit, the animals look healthy enough and the pens look very clean. But in this day in age, its really not acceptable in my view, and I hope that someone will fund the zoo to upgrade it and modernise it for all to enjoy. In a country which has poor infrastructure and so many other urgent issues to tackle, it seems that the zoo is overlooked, and its going to be some time, before anyone takes notice and starts to make improvements.

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The zoo is sadly a reflection of everything that gets me down about Georgia, and also everything I love about Georgia. Its the same with the children, with businesses, with attitudes, everything. Its like, you have these most majestic and amazing creatures, so beautiful and full of potential. Creatures which you can’t help but watch and be fascinated by, and which have enviable power and strength. But which are sadly caged and unable to develop their full potential, and which have no other choice but to develop poor behaviour due to lack of stimulation or training. I see it with the bears as they pace up and down the same path, hours on end, and I see it with the kids in school too. Amazing animals and children, let down by those adults or decision makers who are responsible for nurturing and developing them. Whether that is providing a pen to live in, or in providing dental care to even the wealthy children, or in providing books for the children at school. Someone should take responsibility for making sure that they have been trained in whatever the local social etiquette is, otherwise how will they develop their full potential and become all that they can be?? I’m not saying that they should be disciplined to a British standard. We beat out all creativity and energy in our British kids, and its one of the things I love about Georgian kids. That they are allowed to be children and to have some fun and to be creative, that they are allowed to be CHILDREN. But it also makes me sad that they don’t know how to behave sometimes, that they don’t have any boundaries, and that it sometimes makes my job as a teacher feel like an impossible task. I’ve run out of ideas with my third grade right now. They are really smart kids, and they know English well. But there are too many chiefs in the class, fighting to get the most praise, but not being able to do the simplest things, like follow basic instructions. They don’t bring note books to school, sometimes pens, and they cannot (or will not?) write their name on their work, and they certainly cannot stop talking or interrupting. They don’t know what is appropriate behaviour and what is not. You try and teach something and they interrupt to tell you that they went to Paris once, or they like what you are wearing, or something totally unrelated to what you are teaching them. They have this habbit of thinking that giving you presents, cards or chocolates somehow makes up for their lack of respect or behaviour. Then they complain that they don’t get a ten on their class work. And it makes me sad because surely someone at home should be making sure that they have all their books for school. It is a common problem in Georgia, and it makes teaching even more difficult, and it makes teaching less fun as you cannot do any fun activities with them because they would just get too excited and out of control.

Its a huge learning curve for me, not only with the teaching, but also because I have to somehow find my way around the cultural and child rearing practices and expectations here. I also have to adapt from my expectations and understanding of British children and education, and find some kind of happy medium. I’m getting there with my other classes, but I have yet to find the key to unlock grade 3. If I could, then I would invite Chris Biffle and see what he makes of them and whether he can show me any strategies for getting things to run smoothly with them. They are like the ultimate mystery of teaching right now, and I just can’t put my finger on why they are so hard to teach. Its something to do with the mix of personalities or abilities, but also with my teaching technique, but I am running out of techniques to try with them now.

How do you teach children whose only focus is on telling tales on each other all the time and of being overly obsessed with being the ‘best’ student??? Especially with different abilities and levels of English and emotional maturity. Individually they are all great and teachable, but if you raise the bar then half the class fail, and if you lower the bar, then the other half of the class play up because they are bored. Some of the class are overly vocal, whinging and whining at every single little thing and making digs at each other, and the rest of the class never utter a single word and just sit quietly and do nothing. I feel like I am failing them as a teacher right now. I have to give low marks to the quiet children because they need to participate in lessons, but I have to give poor marks to the vocal students who participate in every which way, apart from what they are supposed to be doing. How can students not even bring notebooks or pens to class, yet they can ALWAYS remember to bring their favourite toy, other books, or stickers to play with or a present or hand written card for me as their teacher???? I hate to seem ungrateful with them, and I do love to get cards and presents, but if they are trying to please me and make me happy, then I would much prefer them to actually do the work I have set them and to do the best they can in THEIR studies for THEIR futures. Maybe it is a reflection of the corruption doing Soviet times, that children who give presents get the best grades, but I don’t think it is as simple as this, and I’ve yet to find a happy medium on this account. Its not something I have experienced outside of Georgia, and a British child would never give the teacher a present, aside from maybe Christmas in Primary School because their parents made them.

Oceans Project Disappointment

I feel the same about the Oceans Project today. That its lost on them. It has so much potential, but its not able to do what its designed to do, because I’m restricted by Georgian spontaneity, chaos, and lack of organisation. My gut feeling is that the project will be fine and it is just teething problems as I adapt to the way that things work in Georgia, and I have a sense that once people actually understand the project and the potential and that it is real, then they will all want to be a part of it. Everyone keeps telling me that Georgians are afraid of new things and are reluctant to participate at first, but that when they see others start to get involved, then they all want to be a part of it. The most frustrating thing is that I feel that it is not being taken seriously. And it is really hard when you are reliant on others for help and advice or translation into Georgian and Russian or whatever. I just don’t have the communication skills, and I’ve always been bad at delegating and asking for advice or vocalising my needs. I get the sense that even the school and teachers don’t actually know what it involves, and its complicated to get that message across.

New Video

So, I’ve made some big decisions this week. Firstly, to drop pre-school as this takes up too much of my time, and I need to focus more on being a good geography teacher and also on my baby, the Oceans Project, and secondly to stop relying on and believing or taking advice from others when it comes to the project. I’m doing half a job with everything right now, and I feel like a failure, so something has to change, and fast. I need to get back to being hands on, to start to be active again, and to do what I can to promote it. I know it will take time, and I have just today got flyers organised, and will plug it and plug it, and plug it, every damned which way possible, both inside and outside of Georgia. That promotion starts tomorrow evening at 7pm with a presentation, which is too late and short notice, but which will hopefully be a start at least. I need to start visiting schools and embassies and giving presentations. I’ve written to the Prime Minister about the project, and the plan is to go on television and interview about it. On a smaller scale, I need to tweet more, and start putting the videos and photos up. All things which I was supposed to be doing from the start, but which got left behind because I was too busy filling in and helping out with the pre school. I’ve also put together the first video of the project, a new skill to me, but one I would love to be competent in:

Visit to London

On the 17th November, myself and the school director are planning to go to London, something which I still have reservations about even happening, but which has to happen. The plan is to go to the Royal Geographical Society to the Explore weekend,

to meet with some of the BBC Oceans series cast and crew if possible, Royal Geographical Society staff, Earthwatch staff from America and Europe, and to use the week to have several different meetings and get the ball rolling, particularly in terms of sponsorship and publicity for our Earthwatch expeditions.

The original plan was to take the Ministers for Education and Environment with us from Georgia and to meet with the equivalent British Ministers, visit the Houses of parliament for lunch and climb up the clock tower to see the famous Big Ben bell. But, disappointingly, though we had everything sorted on the British side, the Georgian side just are not interested, and this really saddens me. It would have been a fantastic opportunity to build up international relations between Britain and Georgia and to show Britain that Georgia is not just about war, and Russia, and that it is actually an amazing place with warm and really interesting people.

I really want to make a television series of the Oceans Project that can be used to educate the rest of the world and to change stereotypes of Georgia and Georgians somehow, and also to bring Georgians forward in terms of knowledge of other countries, and especially of the environment.

I hope that we will visit some British schools and learn about how they teach Geography and to have several meetings with different organisations, and I want people to start seeing the potential of the project. At the moment, we have so much support from outside of Georgia, but its the Georgian stuff that is getting in the way, and my inability to market it inside Georgia.

Plans to Extend the Oceans Project

On the plus side, it looks like we will be starting two new groups within Georgia. One in Batumi, and one in Kutaisi. This is awesome as it means we can reach more children, and have more of an impact on the environment and environmental attitudes here, which will in turn help Georgia to develop its businesses and to meet foreigner’s expectations of a holiday here and so forth.

I really don’t think that Georgia is yet aware of the importance of the project on an international scale. Once we complete our Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, it means that a member of the Royal Family will come to our school and present the children with their awards. This will be a huge step forward, especially in terms of prestige for my British Connection International School. No one really believes this yet, but it happens and the Duke of Edinburgh Award has been running since the 1950s, in hundreds of countries around the rest of the world.

I also don’t think that anyone recognises how significant it will be for the children from the project to participate in the Volvo Adventure in Sweden and to represent Georgia there on an international stage with children from all around the world on this United Nations project.

I see Georgia winning this if we can only support the project’s children to get there:

I truly believe that our project kids are going to get to Sweden and that they have every potential of not just getting to the final, but also of winning. It is the kids on the project that inspire me, and now that I am feeling that I am getting to know them better, the more I really am falling in love with each and every one of them. Georgian kids are just incredible. So innocent, but with energy and creativity, and drive when they want something. There are two kinds of kid at school, those who are totally mind blowing, and those who are a nightmare, and there really doesn’t seem to be anything in between. The really great thing for me, is that a lot of the project children are also in my geography classes, and already I can see changes in them and that this is crossing over into our lessons. At the moment, my seventh grade are my favourite class to teach. They behave well, are bright, fun, and I just want to nurture them and see them progress. There is no doubt in my mind that if they continue the way they are, that they are all going to get a grade A* for their IGCSE exam. They know the boundaries, they conform, and it means that I can actually get on with teaching them, and that we can be a bit ore relaxed in class too. If only all of my classes were so nice. I feel like I am starting to break through with all of them though, apart from third grade, and that makes my job really pleasurable. Its funny how I actually love teaching, and it seems that I spend all week looking forward to teaching my seventh grade right now, so I hope that it stays that way, and I can’t wait to see how they develop as individuals over the course of the next few years, and to go on expedition with them through the Oceans Project. Those are the kind of kid that I designed the project for, the ones who make me really proud and who will really show up the best that Georgia has to offer the world.

The Problems with Teaching when you are a Foreigner

One of the biggest challenges for me so far, has probably been the wide divide between my expectations, understanding, and knowledge of British kids, and the realities and expectations of Georgian children who are brought up to be free range and with very few boundaries. One of the best things about teaching at British Connection School as opposed to my public school, is that there are expectations in terms of behaviour, and we do not need mandatores to control the corridors in break times. They are still a little wild by British standards, but on the whole it is just harmless play. But I do feel very supported by the school in terms of discipline and behaviour and expectations are taken very seriously at all levels in the school. Teachers are treated with respect by the staff, and students also have to learn that. A big contrast to public schools where School Directors do not value their staff, nor do the Ministry, and people can easily turn up to wrk, only to find that they have been sacked. It is nice to see teaching seen as a profession and vocation and a serious job here in my private school. Living with host family who really opened up my eyes to the low opinions of teachers in Georgia, as if they are slaves to the parent’s pride and joy of a spoilt brat. One of my host families really had a bad attitude towards teachers, and they talked as if teaching wasn’t a proper job and like it was easy. Yet they were happy to allow the teachers to spend more time with their child than they spent with the child themself, kind of odd when you think about it! In most countries, teachers are respected and its an important and stable profession, but in Georgia it is one of the lowest jobs, which is very surprising given that parents will give their left arm to ensure that their child has private lessons after school every day, because education is so important.

It fascinates me to see and to learn about my own expectations of children and teaching here, and the more I learn and experience about the Georgian system and people, the more I also understand about my own culture and background. I also have to remind myself that my behaviour is probably just as weird to the children as theirs is for me, and its a big cultural divide at the moment, but slowly the gap is being closed as we both get used to each other.

The Queen and British Social Etiquette

This cultural divide is not just in school, it seems that it is generic. Take for example, the BBC World news today. The biggest story right now is that the Queen of Britain is in Australia with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The leading story is that there was anger because the Prime Minister bowed rather than curtsey to the Queen. People are up in arms, because it is seen as disrespectful and because it means that the Prime Minister does not see herself as below the Queen in status and is therefore refusing to be her servant (or so the argument goes).

Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful in any way, and I like the British traditions and am in favour of the monarchy on the whole. In the Royal Navy I loved the British Naval Traditions, and I always saluted Her Majesty each time I stepped onboard one of her ships, or raised the Union Jack flag at sunrise and sunset. In fact I probably saluted the Queen on average of 50-60 times a day! But, I do think its a bit much that something so simple as a bow instead of a curtsey should be the lead news story, especially when thousands of people in Thailand are dying in floods right now. I mean, why should the Queen be more important than people suffering and dying?? Is it really such a big deal?? One would think that the Prime Minister had punched the Queen by the way the BBC or whoever are going on about it in their report. Yet, the Prime Minister smiled, looked courteous and both seemed pleased to meet each other. I’ll give you an example from the Daily Mail:

“The British-born prime minister of Australia has been accused of disrespect over her failure to curtsey to the Queen.

Julia Gillard, who is in favour of Australia becoming a republic, said curtseying is ‘just not me’.

Instead she shook the Queen’s hand when the monarch arrived in Canberra at the start of a demanding ten-day tour. She also drew criticism for not wearing a hat”.

The official line is that you should just be courteous when you meet the Queen, there is no protocol about bowing or curtseying or shaking hands, or wearing a hat, but in general to touch the Queen is seen as inappropriate. I wonder where this idea of curtseying came from historically? Who decided that it should be so, and why has it become a tradition? The idea behind it is that it is done as a mark of respect, that you are giving yourself as the Queen’s servant, and somehow stating that she is better than you. But why is that so?? I mean, what makes her so special, what has she done in her life that is so amazing? What makes her better than others, aside from having ‘blue’ blood? Is just being born into a family enough, and does it really make your life more valuable than that of another??

I never questioned this before, instead I just took it as something you should always do when meeting the Queen, but as an outsider looking in on life in Britain, I am starting to wonder whether it is just another example of crazy British etiquette and social system. To a Brit, it is the norm to courtesy to the Queen, and to shake hands when meeting mere mortals for the first time. In Japan, it is socially expected that you will bow really low to others, and in Georgia, to give a kiss on the cheek.

I was brought up to believe that touching others was bad and was something socially unacceptable that you just don’t do, and I barely even touch my own grandmother, even to give her a hug after months of being away. And even that is a recent development! To me it seems perfectly normal and reasonable that it is protocol not to touch the Queen, and I can understand why there was such controversy when others touched her like Mrs Obama, Paul Keating, John Howard, Don Romeo, and Eurico De Silver.

I understand why people think the Prime Minister of Australia was rude and disrespectful, but I wonder whether Brits on the whole, are really so aware of how much social etiquette and socially acceptable behaviour we have engrained into us without us really knowing about it. And I guess, that is why it is still so hard for me in dealing with Georgian children, because my expectations of them are still British, and its a lot to ask of them. It doesn’t mean that the kids are badly behaved, or that I am a bad teacher, it is just that we are singing from different hymn sheets, and somehow we still have to find this happy balance between the two.

But, I wonder if that is one of the reasons why I never felt quite settled or happy in Britain and maybe that is why I feel like I fit in more here?? Has Britain really become so caught up in the ‘right behaviour’ that it has lost touch with all reality and what is really important in the world? Has the lack of a curtsey really become more important than the loss of human life in Thailand? I wonder whether the Queen alters her behaviour to adapt to the culture and customs of those countries she visits? Does she bow when she goes to Japan, does she show her feet in Thailand, does she kiss on the cheek? Are Brits aware of their own values and that those of others are different, or do we just expect to go to another country and have them adapt to our ways? I know it is a problem amongst volunteer teachers here with TLG, and if they don’t adapt their expectations then they soon become frustrated and unhappy with life here. They have come to Georgia at the end of the day, and its not America, or Britain, or wherever, so things will never be like they are at ‘home’. The secret to survival is really trying to find a balance, but its a long process, which is easier for some than for others. And then there is the reverse culture shock, when one goes back home, after expedition, or living abroad, or whatever.

I haven’t watched any British television, let alone the news in a really long time, and its really strange to be watching it now as I’m sat in the cafe in Georgia, drinking my caramel macchiato (I’m in the only place in Georgia where you can get a decent cup of familiar coffee!!!). It is actually quite soothing to be watching the news, to be hearing the BBC, listening to native speakers of my mother tongue, and things being put across in a way which I understand. I feel like I can relate to the news features, as weird as that sounds.

I’m in some surreal moment right now, and I do actually have some connection with the news stories I am watching. As part of the Oceans Project, I set up a twitter account () and funnily enough one of our first followers was the Prime Minister of Australia. Right now she has done more for my project than the Queen of my own country and I don’t see the Queen following us on twitter! So I do feel a certain amount of respect for the Prime Minister of Australia, and I feel that way too much was made of her ‘not curtseying’ or ‘not wearing a hat’. And I could also argue that as a Brit, I have spent a considerable amount of my life paying for the upkeep of the Queen through my taxes on my hard earned wages.

I guess the thing that bugs me the most is this idea that one person should be considered better and more valuable than another person. We are all just flesh and bones at the end of the day, and if I was taking a team on an expedition, then I would want to take people who were all contributing something, and I wouldn’t want to be caught up in attitudes about who was the best person and running around being a slave to them just because of who their mother or father was. That is not to say that I don’t have respect for the monarchy, as I do. But I would have a darn sight more respect for Prince Charles, Prince William, or Prince Harry than for the Queen. They are more personable, and I see in them a human side, that if you were at war or on expedition with them, that they would put themselves out for their team mates, and I don’t know whether the Queen would do that. Not because she is selfish or whatever, but perhaps because she has been brought up in different times and under a different generation, with different social rules and expectations. Perhaps that is a reflection of society today? That it is no longer enough, to just be born with a silver spoon in your mouth? That you actually have to work hard for that respect to. My generation never really questioned that either, but having seen that piece on the news, it really makes me question that.

Visit to Georgia from a Member of the Royal Family

It is funny too, because in thinking about this, I realise that Georgians also do not have this concept that she is the Queen and because of that you should not question her and that you should behave in a certain way. We have talked about this a little recently, but I was slow on the uptake and I couldn’t really get my head around it until now. At first, I thought the children rude and ignorant, but then I realised that I have been socially brained washed by my British upbringing. How can these children consider themselves and be so full of themselves to think that they are just as good, if not better human beings than the Queen of England, my Queen, the Head of my country? How dare they? I was prepared to give my life for her country as a member of the Royal Navy, yet these little tinkers, who constantly interrupt and talk about ridiculous things like marrying Justin Beieber think they are more important than her!!!

But, now I understand that actually they have a point. And you have to earn respect. Why should they trust you and not question you just because you tell them they should? What is in it for them? And that is exactly what I have to learn as their teacher. They are not going to behave because I tell them so, but I have to earn that and appreciate and like them as individuals and see the good in them first, we need to develop rapport.

So, this is something that I really have to get my head around now, and it is a little overwhelming for me right now, with a lot to process. As part of the Oceans Project, I am offering the participants the chance to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, and on completion of this, we will receive a visit to our humble school in Georgia from a member of the Royal family from Britain!!!!

Freaked OUT!!!!!!

It seemed like a brilliant idea to offer this, but in reality it could be a social minefield, and a part of me wonders whether I have bitten off more than I can chew. The Duke of Edinburgh is the Queen of England’s husband (Prince Philip) and he set up this charitable award back in the 1950s for young boys to build up their self esteem and to turn them into better people. It was initially started by one of my heroes Kurt Hahn, a Headmaster, back in 1934, but the Duke of Edinburgh developed it and turned it into what we now call the DUke of Edinburgh Award or DofE. It was first run by Sir (Baron) Hunt after he returned from the army and the first ever ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, 7000 boys were enrolled on the award at that time. There are now more than 275,000 young people involved in the programme in around 120 countries, and it is also run in prisons and rehab facilities. Before now, it has never been run in Georgia, and when I decided to set up the Oceans Project here, it seemed to fit the design perfectly. After all, it is available to 14-24 year olds, and you just need £14 per person for the log book. It is also easy enough for the Oceans Project leaders (8 of us) to facilitate and it is really well respected, especially in the UK, not just by employers, but also by universities.

The structure is also fairly simple. The participants need to complete an average of one hour per week learning a new skill, on community work, improving their physical fitness, and they need to go on expedition, all things which we are already doing on the project…brilliant!

But, what I am worried about now, is that at the end of the award, and possibly at completion of Bronze and silver awards too, there will be an official awards ceremony. This will be a big thing, and the children will get to meet and speak to a member of the Royal Family! In the UK, at completion of the Gold Award, the young person is invited to Buckingham Palace and may even receive the award from the Duke of Edinburgh himself, just as my aunt did back in the 1970s. It was as big an occasion then, as it is today, and both my aunt and my grandmother even bought hats and dresses for the occasion. I will put this in context for you. My aunt has worn a dress on only two occasions in her 45ish years of life, once for her wedding, and once to receive her DofE award at the palace!!!!

And here I am, now offering this award to the kids from Georgia, kids who are brought up to be free range and independent and full of themselves! How will they behave when meeting Royalty? What on earth will they ask the Royal member, in terms of questions, what will they reply in answer to questions, and will they be dashing off every five minutes to answer their cell phone or telling the Prince or whoever ‘one minute’ whilst they discuss something ‘important’ with their best friend???? Will they be late for the ceremony???? Will BBC news be reporting on how offensive Georgian children and adults were on meeting royalty????

On the plus side….thank god we have time to prepare!!!! And we have to get through our awards first.

Georgian Maybe Time

I’m getting freaked out by the time right now, and the lack of support I am feeling on the Georgian front. Tomorrow we are hosting a cheese and wine presentation, and it is so late in the day, that I doubt anyone will even know about it, let alone show up. In three weeks time were supposed to be in London. We have no flights booked and nothing organised. I feel like it will never happen, and I am reluctant to organise any meetings for fear of looking stupid when we haven’t even booked flights yet. I know my expectations are high, and I know how disappointed I am at Georgia’s lack of enthusiasm and failure to see how significant this project is for Georgia. I had really wanted the Ministers to come to Britain and to meet with the British Ministers, and it would have done so much for the future relations between Britain and Georgia. I wanted them to come to lunch at the Houses of Parliament and to come and see Big Ben. Everything was in place on the British side, but I’m ashamed that the Georgians as always have showed no interest, yet they get all excited about paying for Sharon Stone to visit Georgia. On days like today, I feel like I am wasting my time here, and that maybe I am just barking up the wrong tree, and maybe I should just give up on the project. Its a lot of energy and time, and if Georgians are not interested, then why bother at all. Days like today, I hate Georgian mentality, but on the other, I still feel that this is my calling in life, and that this is what I am meant to be doing, and that slowly progress will be made, and it will really have an impact on the children who I have grown attached to and who I want to educate and help to develop as the future of not just Georgia, but as guardians of the planet.

I really love my job here, and I find teaching to be really fulfilling on the whole. I feel a strong sense of investing in the future of Georgia, and I really see that there are two sides to Georgia. Those who are still stuck in the past and in the past mentality, and those who have a little spark of the future about them, and who will blossom given a little time and energy. That they are like those bears cooped up right now, having heard it all before, and being afraid to get excited about the possibility of any kind of change. I understand this more now, especially having invested so much time and energy into my public school, only to see people lose jobs and for it to close. It is life and that is what they call progress, but I can’t be a part of that, even though a part of me always will be, just by living here.

I have been built up my Georgians, inspired and encouraged, and misled by good intentions, only to be horribly let down and disappointed, so I am starting to understand why progress is slow, and why it takes so long to gain people’s trust. BUt it will get there, and I hope that if I stop relying on well meant but empty Georgian promises, and always have a back up plan, then I will somehow be able to avoid that emotional pit fall, and be able to go about my project doing my own thing as much as possible, and making it work and succeed. It just feels right, no matter how hard some days may feel.

Why do I chose to Stay in Georgia?

It took me a long time to figure out why I sometimes have these difficult days, but then I realised and understood it, and that is half of the battle really. Now I am aware of what is niggling me, I can move on and deal with it, and find solutions to get me through everyday life and the challenges that each day brings.

It is actually very simple. And it comes down to my being an alien in Georgia. In Britain, I was brought up to be fairly cold and not to have emotions, and since every other person behaves in exactly the same way, it is perfectly normal and easy to go about every day life. BUt in Georgia, every day life is not so, and I often feel as if I am on some emotional roller coaster. The crux of the problem is that I just don’t have the social tools to deal with the human interactions here, and I don’t yet know the rules and etiquette. I must seem as alien to those around me at times, as they do to me. I get offended when they don’t adhere to my social rules, and they don’t understand why I behave the way I do. It is like the Queen and the Australian Prime Minister on a smaller scale!

Georgians are such warm people, and they make friends very easily, forming friendships equivalent to what would take years to establish in Britain. They have friends EVERYWHERE!! At work, at home, in the street, at the gym. In Britain we have colleagues, but Georgians have close friends. Whilst I would consider it socially unacceptable to call my colleagues at particular times of day or days of the week, Georgians don’t understand this, as a friend is a friend no matter what time of day. A Georgian friend of mine got married over the summer, and I couldn’t believe it when, on her wedding day, she called to see if I had been paid from work yet and if I had enough to keep me going. An hour later she was married in a small ceremony with just hers and her husband’s parents. Most brides would have over things on their mind on their wedding day! But to her, we were friends and it was worrying her. When people here ask the question ‘how are you’, they are genuinely interested, not just making small talk as we do in Britain. That has been quite a thing to get used to, and I’m often surprised that people actually answer my question ‘how are you?’, especially since my Georgian or Russian is not good enough to fully understand the answer as yet!!!

The reason that life is hard for me in this way, and with no social tools, is that everyday I feel vulnerable and confused as I am not used to such a level of intimacy, especially with people I consider to be colleagues. But I also like it, even though it scares me and I am not yet equipped with it. The reason I love it, is because there is something so human and magical about connecting with another individual and taking time out of life to have a human moment, rather than getting caught up in really insignificant and unimportant daily tasks and jobs. In Britain, I was always working to a deadline or expectation, especially in my hospital work. It was about meeting targets, getting paperwork done, and hoping that the person would die quickly because their was a shortage on beds for the patients lining the corridors waiting for them. I would want to spend time actually ‘caring’ for and giving the time that I felt the patients deserved and the kind of care that I myself would want if I was feeling sick and vulnerable and in an alien and cold environment such as a hospital. But if I had stopped to take time, then I would have been in trouble with my bosses, who were also under pressure. We had somehow become like NHS robots, and to show any kind of emotion of connection or empathy with a patient was almost seen as some kind of weakness. The people who cared were the ones who ended up off sick for months with depression and mental health problems, which were probably nothing to do with sickness or weakness, but were just normal responses to being a human and seeing sadness on a daily basis, and knowing that you were trapped and not allowed to help that person because there was no time. If you gave the time that person needed, that was time away from another patient, who could die, and then you would be sued for neglecting them!

Thankfully, I don’t live in that world any more, even though I am really busy. But half of the pressure in being busy is what I put upon myself because a part of me is still trying to meet good old British standards. BUt the difference is, that I can explain how and why I feel a particular way and changes can be made, its not an all or nothing thing, that you either do the job or you don’t. There is room for compromise and to find solutions, in short, their is SUPPORT! A new concept to me, a value I have always believed in, but which I never found in Britain.

I love that when I walk my dog in the street, various Russian speaking old ladies, wearing their black widow’s clothes, come up to me in the middle of the street, and give me a big moustachy kiss and a pat on the shoulder, and seem to light up at the sight of me. We don’t have a common language, yet we manage to say hello and ask how each other are, and we have time for each other, and there is a sense of human contact. If there is an English speaker passing by that they know, they will grab them keenly and get them to translate and ask me questions so that we can communicate. This rarely, probably in fact, never happens to me in Britain, and even though I spent Christmas staying at my granny’s house, she never once asked me anything about my life in Georgia. Yet we speak the same language and it should be easier for us to share things. BUt we are both British and we adhere to social etiquette and behaviour and we don’t have things such as emotions or opinions. A display of affection is a no no where I come from, yet alone showing any emotion or signs of affection. Even when my grandfather died, my grandmother informed me that under no circumstances at all, was I to be seen to be crying, and that was it, I had to lock up any sense of loss or grief well inside me for fear of breaking some social etiquette. Yet here these really, complete strangers embrace me every time they see me, and have expressive faces that reflect exactly how they re feeling at that particular moment. Each time, it takes me by surprise, because I am still not used to it, but I love it all the same.

I love how people can ruffle a kid’s hair, laugh with a child, joke with them or even tell them off. And I especially love to see strangers telling off other people’s children on the bus or in the street, with exclamations of ‘gogo’ (girl) or ‘eh bitcho’ (boy) and that the children respect this and behave better. I wonder if this is how Britain was when my grandmother was growing up, as it seems to have the same characteristics that she often talks about. If it is the case, then I wonder where or how things changed in Britain, and how did we lose the respect of our children in Britain, and why are we so afraid of upsetting them now? Is this perhaps why British kids have low self esteem, because they think that adults no longer care about them, or are we just so caught up in maintaining this exterior of control, but no longer dealing with this repressed emotion?? Maybe we are just too busy meeting deadlines that we have lost our connection and sense of humanity? Maybe this is why we find it acceptable to be more concerned with a person not curtseying to the Queen than we are with the flooding in Thailand? It is certainly food for thought. ANd I wonder sometimes whether my feeling down is not about being upset about something, but is maybe more to do with the process of reflecting on and adapting or merging my British upbringing with my Georgian surroundings??

Coffee.Ge

On days like today, it is funny that I crave my normality, and the place which makes me happiest at these times is my favourite coffee shop, coffee.ge. It is the place that I have come since I moved to Tbilisi from Vale in the region, and is the place where I have come to work through my hardest experiences here in Georgia. It is a refuge for me, a place where things are familiar and safe and where I can go into my own little world and pretend for five minutes that I am not in Georgia. It is not alien, or confusing, or overly intimate like many things in Georgia, and it is the ONLY place I have yet found, where what you order is exactly what you get. So many places in Georgia are horribly disappointing on that front, and it gets tedious ordering chicken only to get pork, or to get whatever it is that they think you want, or what they have in stock, rather than what you actually ordered. Sometimes it is akin to being at a children’s tea party where the child gives you an amazing array of options for food and drink, but you know that in reality the child only has water or soil to play with and that is what you will be getting, no matter how great the child’s imagination or customer service is!!! There is no concept in Georgia of a ‘Trades Description Act’ or ‘Customer Service’, and so you have to just take it as it comes and always expect the unexpected. But NOT in Coffee.ge. Here you can order from a western menu, and what you get is exactly as described, and to top it off, it tastes delicious, and like it should! PLus the customer service is excellent. Consistent,delicious, and reliable, every single time! Perfect for those moments when you cannot emotionally deal with another let down or unexpected order of food that wasn’t what you actually wanted!

Nikoloz is to blame

It was Georgian film Director Nikoloz who first introduced me to Coffee.ge just a few days after I moved from the village to Tbilisi. I never in my wildest dreams imagined finding any such place in Georgia! And from that moment, it became my favourite haunt, which was handy given its proximity to my public school! ALthough not great financially as it catered more for rich Georgians and foreigners than for those on a TLG salary! But even for the odd coffee it was more than worth the visit and money. It is also the only place in Georgia to offer Starbucks coffee, rather than the traditional Turkish style coffee popular amongst Georgians. I like that too, but sometimes I want something more tasty and familiar to me. I am not at all surprised that Nikoloz brings so many people here, and he should be on commission really. It is the only place that I would bring actors or film crew from the USA or Britain if I was him. Foreigners have unrealistically high expectations in general, which Georgia often fails to meet, no matter how hard they try. They don’t understand that if I am in McDonalds and I order chicken burger, then I want a chicken burger, not a fish burger, or if I visit the Indian restaurant and order Korma, then I want Korma not a totally different dish. If I am bringing foreigners to Georgia, they will expect that everyone’s order will be delivered at the same time so that we can all eat together, with separate dishes for each person. But this is not the Georgian way, and it is hard for Georgians to understand our frustration. By Georgian standards, dishes never arrive all together, and everyone shares what is ordered, eating one dish, and then the next. There is no such thing as my dish and your dish. It is these little things which can get tiresome at times, and that is probably one of the reasons I like Coffee.ge. as the food arrives hot and together. Often Georgians deliver dishes cold, and the concept of a hot meal is a bit lost. I’ve no idea where this comes from, but in the village I really missed having hot food, and I couldn’t understand why people would cook things and then leave it to stand on the table to go cold before eating it.

The other reason why I spend so much time at Coffee.ge when I do come here, which isn’t so often these days as I don’t have so much time, is that its really cosy and relaxed. It reminds me of life in London, where Investment bankers worked crazy hours all week long, wearing boring and regimented suits, but then on a Sunday, you would see them all, looking funny in their casuals, sat in cafes reading books, sat all alone on the sofa. Coffee.ge has that same kind of facility and is the perfect place to come for hours and to sit and do your work or read a book, and with no pressure, but it is also more friendly and comfortable than a London cafe. I love that the staff know me fairly well, and that they never bug me. They can see what kind of a mood I am in, and they never harass me. I can just sit and stew and drink my coffee, or if I wish I can be more sociable. It is predictable and easy to understand, and that is why I love to go there when everything in the rest of my life is muddled or confused.

Sally Kettle and the Floods in Thailand

But it is strange today, because I am sat drinking my coffee and catching up the news. I’ve actually only ever seen the news being shown here twice in over 8 months, once for the Royal Wedding, and today. Normally they show pop concerts or the fashion channel, or something more uplifting. But I think there are higher forces at play today, like it was my destiny to be here at this particular moment, and that someone is trying to tell me something. I feel connected to the rest of the world today, and I no longer feel so alone in Georgia, and struggling with my decision to be here. All around the world, their are British ex-pats right now, sat at a bar, or cafe, or on the beach, watching the BBC World News, just like me. Maybe they are happy, maybe they are sad, and maybe they are also wondering whether they are doing the right thing living away from their home country, or mulling over British culture and social etiquette. I wonder how many of them think that the leading story on the news should have been the floods in Thailand rather than a woman in australia not wearing a hat????

I was starting to feel a bit despondent about my Britishness, and I was thinking about my uncle, a British ex pat who moved to Thailand after retiring from the British Army having served our Queen for over 30 years. I wonder what he thinks about this hat and curtseying business? He lives near the border of Cambodia with my aunt who is Thai, and he loves life there, and also dislikes many things about Britain. Actually, I am sensing a pattern here!! I am an ex pat, living in Georgia, my father is an ex pat living in Latvia, my uncle is an ex pat living in Thailand, and my aunt is an ex pat living in New Zealand!!!! Never realised that before lol!

ANyway, I was starting to dislike my British my upbringing and wasn’t feeling very patriotic, when there on BBC World News, was my friend Sally Kettle, on the big screen in High Definition, and also on the television in the corner, above the bar, selling all sorts of lovely tipples. Suddenly I remembered one reason why I do feel proud to be a Brit, and its because there ARE actually some incredibly amazing Brits out there, representing our country and making me proud to call myself a Brit. Yet, the Prime Minister’s lack of a hat, still got more coverage than my friend Sally out in Thailand, doing amazing work, kind of annoying really, but still they reported her and that was still great to see, and a good reminder of why I am happy to call myself a Brit.

Sally and I both have the same film agent, Screenlite, who are based at Pinewood Shepperton Film Studios, but Sally is super cool and I am not. Sally is a model, actress, public speaker, and has a piece about her on wikipedia, a sure sign that she is cool:

“Sally Kettle is an ocean rower and the first woman to row the Atlantic Ocean twice from East to West. She competed in The Ocean Rowing Society Atlantic Rowing Regatta in 2004 with her mother, Sarah Kettle, becoming the first mother and daughter team to row an ocean.[1] She competed in the 2005 Atlantic Rowing Race with the crew Rowgirls. Sally Kettle is an inspirational speaker”.

She also wrote a book about her time at sea, which you can purchase here: But most importantly, Sally gives up her time and comfort to work with several charities, one of them being ‘Shelter Box’, a British Charity who go to places where there are disasters, and deliver a very special box to people in need. The box itself serves as a piece of furniture or storage, but inside the box, there is a tent, and enough equipment to rehome a family and to set up temporary villages in times of need. A really simple idea, that makes such a difference to those who have lost their home. Here is a video of Sally and Shelterbox in action after the earthquake in Sumatra, two years ago:

and here she is on the television in Coffee.ge in Georgia:

and if you are still not inspired, or still do not understand why I was so happy to see Sally on the television in Georgia when I was having a bad day, then hopefully her little TED talk will inspire you:

Watching Sally in action reminded me that there are greater stakes at play here, and that my being here at this particular point in my life is right, and somehow the Oceans Project feels like my destiny. I know that I will have days when I feel despondent and depressed about the ways things are, but I also know that I have never felt so certain about anything in my life, as I do right now.

Difficulties with Friendships and Foreigners

It is hard to be running such a project, and I do feel that I am putting myself out on a limb at times and I feel a great sense of responsibility, particularly to those who are buying in to my dream for Georgia. I have to make things work, I need to carry the project, and raise the money to take the children on expeditions. It is hard sometimes to find the balance in life. This is my baby right now, and it demands my full attention. I’ve had some struggles recently, interestingly, not with Georgians, but with other TLG volunteers, particularly from my group who seem intent on trying to cause trouble for me. I don’t really understand why this is, but there is one expression which comes to mind right now, something that my form tutor Mrs Du Rose once told me when I was feeling down as a ten year old. She told me of a well known quote: “You don’t have to blow my candle out. To make yours look brighter”. I had forgotten all about it until today, but I suddenly remembered it and it strikes a cord in me as I wonder why people try to discourage me from doing my thing. One of them is in Canada and unemployed after a failed attempt as a TLG volunteer, the other is her friend. And it came to me that perhaps they were jealous or maybe even angry at themselves for failing in their own lives, and to make themselves feel better, they now spend time bitching about me on facebook or whatever, calling me a ‘cartoon character’. But it is funny, because I have come to learn over many years, that such people are divas, and that they expert to get your attention every five minutes, for every little drama that they create for themselves in their lives. They set you up to fail, as you cannot analyse them or pre empt every single little modd or strop, or Diva moment. They are never satisfied, and when you need them, they are never there for you.

This made me think about the kinds of people I have in my life, and I realised something important. I have one or two best friends in my life. I haven’t seem them since I came to Georgia, and I often don’t have time to speak to them. But I know that if I ever got sick or had an emergency, that they would sell the shirt on their back and personally bring me back to Britain if necessary. We never need to ask when we NEED something, we just know, and we never need to analyse each other, we just know. We don’t play games or attention seek, and it is a two way thing. My best friend Tish has always been there for me, through thick and thin, and she is the best friend a person could want. We met when we lived in shared house with landlords from hell (a vicar and his wife) and an old lady who lived in the garage, and a solicitor. It was awful, and it was that experience which forced us together really as we quickly decided to find another place to rent, and met my other best friend Judy. We shared a house for about 3 years until we all changed careers and went to university as mature students or moved to another part of the country. We used to train for kickboxing competitions every week, ran 10km together at least once a week, and would go mountaineering or climbing together at weekends, each working crappy jobs the rest of the time to make ends meet. We all changed careers, me becoming a Neuropsychologist, Tish becoming a Physiotherapist, and Judy becoming a Nurse. We used to go on expeditions together, and after I developed Guillain Barre in India, both were amazing and really helped me in my rehab. They understood, and I never felt guilty that I couldn’t do things or if I fell asleep part way through conversations or whatever. I could just be me, no airs and graces or pressure. There was no bad feeling or resentment. And that is how we have been ever since. We don’t see each other often, but when we do, it is like nothing has changed and we pick up where we left off. If either of them had a problem, I would know, and I would also do anything I could to help them out. There is a difference between wanting and needing, and we don’t want from each other, its a mutual respect. And it is the difference between a true friend and someone who is high maintenance and constantly demanding of attention all the time. We often don’t agree about everything, we even argue about which DVD we want to watch together as we have totally different tastes. But it doesn’t matter, because it is the thing we are not agreeing on, not the friendship.

I’ve struggled in my relationships with other TLG volunteers and I couldn’t really figure out why, as I had previously got on with everyone throughout my life. But I’ve realised that it is because the situation or expectation kind of forced us together, and friendship is an assumption, but that understanding of friendship is wrong. I’ve lost count of the amount of time and sacrifices I made whilst living in a host family, listening to TLG volunteers complaining about their experiences in Georgia, only to find that when it came to it, they were not genuine people, but really just users, who took advantage of my good nature.

It was a difficult decision to make and I wondered whether I was making myself a loner, but I know it was the right thing to do. I stopped being a party to people’s dramas, to making myself exhausted by being always available for every little issue a volunteer wanted to talk about. And maybe that is why some people resent me now, because they sense that I’m not interested in their dramas anymore? I’m done with time wasters, and bad mouthers, and I’m all about me now and what I need for my future in Georgia. I guess the summer was the time when I realised that, as it was lovely when all all the volunteers went home, and my phone was finally quiet. I had time for me, and for my true friends, and those volunteers who were really friends continued to contact me and see how I was going. The others didn’t contact me at all, even though they knew the Ministry had not paid me and I was having a hard time, and those are the same folk who only contact me when they want a favour. Those are the people I have wasted money on too, bailing them out for this that and the other. I’m done with that. I’ve a life to lead and I’m just not interested. Some of those folk are not even in Georgia anymore, yet they still waste their time trying to bitch about me to new volunteers, pretty sad really, and makes me wonder what their real problem is??? Its not like they ever have to see me again or speak to me, so why do I still bug them so much that they plan to move to Kazhakstan and then ‘destroy me’.

You are always going to get those who like you and those who don’t in life, especially when you put yourself out there with a project such as mine. I’m not perfect by any means, and I don’t pretend to be, I am just me. My only aim in life is to do what ever I can to help others and to make the world a better place, and the kids here are at the centre of my world and my reason for staying in Georgia. Im not out to get anyone, nor am I asking anyone to be my friend. I’m just being me.

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About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
This entry was posted in Autobiographical Things, Being a Medic, Britishness, Explorers, Family, Filming, Friendship, Georgian Life, Oceans Project, Teaching and Geography, The Pets, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Down, but by No Means Out!

  1. Lothar says:

    You know, it really is a shock to me to hear about your cultural struggle. As an Australian, we generally do not have any special feelings about members of the royal family or care so much about etiquette. Only some old people have that. Even since I was a young child the idea of saluting to anyone felt false. I honestly can’t imagine feeling loyalty to protect a country and especially not a queen.

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