Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hold Your Horses for: Celebrations, Conferences, and Competitions

Dear readers,
I slipped again, what can I say? I feel like apologies go unneeded, because I’m sure I’ll lapse again in the future. My momma always used to say that you should only apologize for something once and never do it again, otherwise you don’t mean it. It’s life.

So March was an insane month. I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. It finished, however, some of the to-dos are still lingering. I would prefer them to get cut off before the end of April so we’ll see what I can do.

I spent today sobbing over “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991) and oddly a few scenes from “Julie and Julia” (2009). I really enjoyed them both. I think I may have solidified a new quote into my vocabulary, “The secret’s in the sauce.” Overall, I really enjoyed “J &J.” I think it gave me the motivation I need to finish this cookbook I’ve been working on. I can’t promise it’ll be as amazing as “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), but it’ll do. The movie really touched home with the point that in my mind I start developing all of the projects, but so many of them go unfinished. I’m going to try to remedy this. I have to say that I was upset in Julie and Julia that it doesn’t seem as though the two of them ever patched things up in the end or before Julia Child passed away. It’s not always necessary to have a happy ending, but it would’ve been nice.

So I think I’ll catch you up to speed with what I’ve been up to these days. So all of April, I took a “staycation,” however I didn’t really stay anywhere. I at least got the energy to get back on my feet from March. 2 days a week I’ve continued my computer class in the IDP village and continuing the book club reading of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with my adults on Wednesday nights. The Fair Elections Center I used to hold it in is in a transition period, so we did this last Wednesday in the English Cabinet in my school. What lasted for so long as 12 people in my group has the past two weeks dwindled to 4. Nothing lasts forever I guess.

I spent this past weekend through Tuesday in Borjomi for Passover with a dear volunteer I’ll call “Harucet.” I got to know this person much better and truly enjoy their company. Harucet organized the Seder for their English club and family. I was invited and helped to prepare the dishes as well. I’ve been to many a Passover Seder in my day, but this was the first one I helped prepare. We made traditional dishes (and then some) and set up the table with all the symbolic elements for the guests and retelling of Exodus. I myself am spiritual, but it was such an experience. Harucet did an incredible job at the reading, and we even had some Pre-service Training staff join us for the dinner. It was one of the most special nights I’ve had in Peace Corps for sure.

En route to Borjomi, I made a stop at the Bude (Buddha? Buda? Meh?) Bar in Tbilisi. I had heard many things about it from couchsurfing listservs, and it was an experience. I learned some interesting yet inappropriate phrases in German and Chinese.

The second weekend in April, I went to Telavi and fooded it up with the Telavi quad. INCREIBLE! (it was) Worthy of note: we made baked buffalo wings with bleu cheese sauce, a scrumptious salad (real lettuce!) with caesar dressing, and a warm flourless chocolate cake with caramel sauce. All of it was from scratch, and all of it was amazing. Note: Someone also pointed out recently that I use that word (amazing) a lot and that is because life. Is. Amazing.

The first weekend in April (April Fool’s Day! And etc.) I went out West for the 4th Annual Baghdati English Language Competition. We had about 100 students in attendance from 8 schools. There were some snags with minor things, but compared with last year it went so, so, so smoothly. I believe everyone had a great time. With the help of all the volunteers helping, I had so much fun putting all the pieces together. Thanks to all the guys who volunteered! It seriously would not have gone so smoothly without you. A HUGE thank you also goes to the elementary school I correspond with back in the US. They sent so many prizes that made all of the kids winners (Cheesy but true). 

Photo #16 - We Are... Your Friends - Students created posters for the
elementary school that donated prizes for the event. Even though there
were a few spelling errors, the heart is all there.

Speaking of which, I have discovered the joy of popping popcorn over the stove. It’s so easy, and the taste is so much better. Here’s my recipe (also appearing in the sooner than never cookbook):
-          2 tbsp oil
-          1/3 cup of popcorn kernels
-          Salt
Directions: Place the oil and 3 kernels in a pot with a lid enough to hold a large bag of popcorn over medium-high heat. Heat the oil and three kernels until the 3 kernels pop. Remove from heat. Add the remaining kernels and cover. Roll the kernels around in the oil and wait 30 seconds. Then return to heat, occasionally rolling the kernels around to keep from burning. It will pop soon. As soon as popping stops for several seconds, remove from heat, add salt as desired, and enjoy.

It’s really simple, but for those who haven’t tried it: give it a go!

Ok. Now let’s jump to the end of March. Twas Novruz Bayram. Novruz, in many Muslim traditions is the celebration of the New Year. As I live in an Azeri (Majority Muslim) community, it’s kind of a big deal. It was a fun and long day. I had guests in from out of town, and the main event was that the Georgian President was coming to my town. I had my municipality’s flag hung out on my balcony. I thought it was oddly fun at first, but continually had government representatives yelling at me to fix the flag. It wasn’t as carefree as I originally had thought.

Photo #17 - Novruz Parade From Balcony - People marching up and down
the streets with the pride of the municipality blowing in the wind before
Misha's (the president's) arrival.

The day started with a small parade, followed by a concert where famous pop-singer “Manana” performed. Manana and Saakashvili (Georgian Prez) appeared at almost the same time, so attentions were divided. I like to think for fun pronunciation purposes, Manana is Azerbaijan’s second-rate Madonna. Manana’s Georgian, but she is more popular in Azerbaijan than she is in Georgia.

The video below is a street performance of local Azeris celebrating the holiday with impromptu traditional dancing and music:

Anyways. The Azerbaijan President was also scheduled to come, but it didn’t work out. Azeris and Georgians united across town in the days before to prepare for their arrival. I’ve never seen such large-scale, last-minute preparations. They cut all the limbs off of all the trees lining the road. They also painted the bases of the trees white. They painted the trees by actually slapping paint onto them with a straw broom. I guess I understand that phrase now. (slap some paint on it) I’m sad that the trees will not be leafy and green any time soon (no branches), but optimistically, there should be a lower amount of bugs this year given that they have one less home, although currently, my kitchen is plagued by mini manbugs (ugly lady bugs).

During Novruz, I was rather disappointed with how they handled it. The prejudice became very apparent between a few of the police in dealing with Azeris. I had all sorts of things in my pockets, and I slid on through the security check point, even though the metal baton went off as it glided over my pockets, but Azeris searched by the prejudiced police had everything searched. This is a similar situation to what you might see in the US, and it could’ve been worse. I was just disappointed in seeing some police officers behave that way.

Photo #18- Novruz Parade Close-up - The group of locals dressed up as
pirates in Mardi Gras fashion marched up and down the main street in town.
While not traditional, this event was rather festive.

My friend who documented the event for a peacebuilding publication was told by Saakashvili’s police detail that they did not have authorization to document the event, because my friend mentioned that they were a journalist, whereas, I myself could’ve taken pictures (as people actually were) with no problem. I’m such a fan of freedom of the press in America.

It’s good that the Georgian President came out to Marneuli for this special holiday for minorities, but I overheard several people comment that they wished it wouldn’t have been so much about Saakashvili. They felt that it really took something away for what should’ve been a full focus on a festive traditional holiday. I guess it’s a delicate balance.

After the public celebration, everyone goes to their home or home of a family member to have a family celebration until (and after) sun down. I was invited over to one of my bookclub student’s houses. I went with a new friend of the journalist I met at the public celebration. From the day, and days leading up to it, I learned a lot about the interworkings of Azeri culture and their responses to foreigners and gender roles/limitations. My student really blew me away with some amazing desserts that she had spent 2 days making. It was incredible. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after my arrival, as it was in a village, and I had to get back to my apartment before transportation discontinued for the day. Usually, Azeris will jump over a bonfire after dark. From what I gathered, the belief is that when you jump over the fire, all of the negative things (problems, worries, etc) you have drop in to start the New Year cleansed. They refer to it as a New Year, because it is the day that the hours between light and dark are in balance. Overall, it was a great experience with great people.

Photo #19 - Girls with Wheatgrass - These group of little girls carrying
wheatgrass to symbolize new life just finished opening for Manana with
Azeri and Georgian traditional dances.

I hustled after Novruz to Tbilisi for our Close of Service (COS) conference. I was on the COS conference planning committee, and did a couple sessions. I could’ve done a better job, but hey! It was my first time doing this. Usually, volunteers do not take a major role in planning sessions, however, (in my opinion) due to budget cuts, we did.  It’s basically a conference on how to adapt to the US when we get back. We talked about reverse culture shock, had a professional panel come and talk to us, had a surprise* and also had some press opportunities. Our surprise was that we were invited to meet with the Prime Minister of Georgia (aka second in command/VP)! It was nuts, so we met with him, and the most shocking was that he asked us how he could improve their country. We gave some feedback. I was one of the few to voice their opinion. I basically mentioned the problems with schools in minority areas: not having enough space and problems with language/integration. Schools are very much ethnically segregated—Azeris in one, Georgians in the other (for example). Of course my school is 50% Azeri, but that’s due to overflow, but within the school there’s further segregation. I said that schools should just be schools, not Azeri, Armenian, Russian or Georgian schools, but just schools. Also, language of instruction should be Georgian, but there has to be a system in place to make it happen. Also, ethnic minorities should be able to retain their languages and cultures. It’s another problem in the US, but one that I feel that they at least address. Here they offer Georgian (ethnic) teachers pay incentives to go to Azeri schools, but it should be the other way around, too. There should also be pay incentives and a system for Georgian teachers to learn the minority language. Georgians are always saying to me how amazing it is that I speak Georgian after only 2 years. Well. Why not learn a minority language for them? It would help with integration and regional job opportunities. I know there’s a lot of disagreement about this, but those are my thoughts. I think our feedback was well-received by the Prime Minister.

Photo #20 - The Round Table of Le Prime Minister - Usually government
officials meet in this room, but just a few minutes after these seats would be
 filled by the warm bodies of Peace Corps volunteers and the Prime Minister
of Georgia.

AND right from the COS conference, I bounced across town to the FLEX (Future Leaders EX-change) alumni training—“FLEX-ability” where I trained 15 (5 Armenian, Azeri, Georgian) alumni on themes of Project Design Management for 4 days. There were 3 groups of 15. The other 2 trainers were also Peace Corps Volunteers, but 1 from Azerbaijan and 1 from Armenia. Our group thought of doing a trash clean-up for (most of them) their first project to help in creating a volunteer culture among youth in the Caucasus. Amazingly, FLEX alumni from Armenia and Georgia were already able to pull of this project. My Georgia group additionally wrote up their project proposal and submitted it for a grant. It’s amazing to give a group some tools and guidance to see what they can create! My group was awesome and we had so much fun!

As a sort of team-building exercise, we had to do a skit (video-taped) of our region for the next year’s future FLEX students to watch at their orientations, like a travel promotion of sorts. Since the South group was full, I was with the Western Mountains. I was so lucky, because I couldn’t have worked with a more amazing group of alumni for this. We were really goofy and had a great time. For our skit, we made “videos” within the skit for a couple to watch. Since we were short-staffed, I was the travel agent and acting in some of the “videos” (skits within a skit).

Photo #21 - Mt. Rushmore Cover Band - For the FLEX-ability conference,
this was a scene from our skit acting out the tourist destinations for the
Mountain-West Region of the United States.

Final note: Not long after FLEX-ability, I went with my anime watching partner to McDonald’s. We ate our meal and wanted to play “Phase 10.” We deal our cards and a female manager angrily comes up to us and declares in English, “CARDS NO!” I ask in Georgian, “Why?” She responds with a sneer, “Because.” I’m sorry, and I’m learning that it’s a cultural no-no to play cards in public, but McDonald’s should be an exception. It’s already a wonderful place (service 1000% better than in America). Why the hell did this floozy ruin our good mood? It was the cold slap in the face that we were in Georgia. A note for this woman (but more for my own satisfaction): "Because" is not enough justification for some rule. It is not a satisfactory cover-all explanation, unless you’re 5. It’s irritating, and I’m boycotting the Rustaveli McDonald’s until I get over it. I wish she would’ve come up to us calmly and said, “Excuse me, but it is not allowed to play cards in our establishment. I didn’t make the rule, and I’m very sorry.” I would’ve been pissed anyways, but at least it wouldn’t have been personal.

Alright folks! Thanks for your patience and hopefully this wasn’t too much! xoxo Until next time!

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