Georgian Lessons

So I finally got my act together and have signed up for six weeks of “Survival Georgian” classes, and my first class is on Monday. In the meantime I’ve been compiling a list of things I wished I was able to say in Georgian during the two weeks I’ve been here, but that I am doubtful the class is going to cover. These include:

  1. The corner of the ceiling in the bathroom seems to have fallen. Help?
  2. Please, for the love of all that is holy, please stop yelling outside my window. It is 3 am.
  3. Cumin.
  4. Hello small children. Please stop knocking on my door and running away. It wasn’t funny the first time, or the subsequent ten times.
  5. Dear sir, you seem to be confused. Let me assure you that I was in line before you.
  6.  COULD SOMEONE JUST EXPLAIN TO ME HOW I USE THIS BOX TO PAY FOR THINGS?
  7. No really, I don’t need 2 kilos of eggplants. Really. No, seriously. Please stop handing me eggplants.

One week later

Walking to work this morning, listening to the now-familiar clatter of the loose cobblestones, it was difficult to believe that just one week ago I was making the same walk, terrified about starting my internship. At the time I was also not entirely sure where the office was located. Fortunately, thanks to the help of some whatever the Georgian equivalent are of babushki, I found the right street and the office. Although I was told to arrive at 10 am, which to me seemed somewhat late, when I arrived there were only two people in the office, both of whom seemed to be at a loss for what to do with me. So I read through some information about the organization, various past publications and project/grant proposals until the rest of the people who work here began trickling in at around 11. This is actually pretty normal here. Also, I learned that Wellesley’s pre-internship orientation gave me seriously unrealistic expectations about the office dress code… jeans and a t-shirt is perfectly acceptable, and I actually feel over-dressed most days.

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Since I don’t speak any Georgian, I am not necessarily the most helpful intern, but people here have been pretty nice to me anyway. I forgot my lunch on Thursday, and despite the fact that I didn’t tell anyone about it, two people came and dropped off food at my desk, unsolicited, over the course of the day. (Apparently someone thought I needed to try lobiani,  which is a kind of bean-stuffed bread/pastry. The version I got resembled a pig in a blanket, but with beans instead of a hot-dog. It made for a great lunch, actually.

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In terms of actual work, I am currently researching the implementation of anti-discrimination laws in various Eastern European countries. (Georgia recently passed its own such law, and I think the organization I’m working at will be somehow involved in its implementation.) It’s interesting work, but also frustrating, because a lot of the information I need is only available in, say, Moldovan, or Lithuanian.

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Outside of work, I’ve been doing my best to explore the city and am still adjusting to living here. I navigated the food bazaar by myself yesterday, and was rewarded with a huge pile of fresh produce. Most of my interactions with people here take on the same form: I ask “Do you speak English” and if they don’t, then ask “говорите по-русски?” If they don’t speak English or Russian, then I am out of luck and do my best to communicate with hand gestures, which works well about half the time. I made a bit of a fool of myself at the market yesterday– I was looking for cumin, and the woman selling spices only spoke Georgian, so she found a friend who spoke Russian, but then I realized I had no idea how to say “cumin” in Russian either. Five people speaking a mix of Georgian, Russian, and English later, I had to admit defeat, and apologized profusely before moving on.

On Saturday I took a hike from my apartments up to Mtatsminda Park, and then across the hills over to the Narikala Fortress and the Tbilisi Botanic Gardens. It was a beautiful day and I got some spectacular views of the city.

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I also passed by the Kartlis Deda (“Mother of Georgia”) giant aluminum statue that helps me find my way home when I’m wandering the city (it’s almost directly above my street.) The statue is holding wine in one hand to greet guests, and a sword in the other to greet enemies, which is perhaps telling about the Georgian national character? Regardless, I can confirm that the statue is large and made of aluminum.

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The Botanic Gardens were absolutely stunning– in places it felt as though I’d left the city entirely. I didn’t get a chance to explore the pinetum or the “Plants of Eastern Georgia” section, but I have no doubt I’ll be back. It definitely puts Petersburg’s Botanic Gardens to shame (although I am biased towards gardens that don’t feel cultivated.)

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Looking forward to possibly doing some hiking outside of the cities in the following weeks… stay tuned!

Last day in Russia, Arrival in Tbilisi

On my last morning in St. Petersburg, I came into the kitchen for breakfast, expecting kasha as usual, and was instead confronted with this:

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My host mom has been in the hospital for the past few days because she fell and hurt her knee, but she asked her neighbor to come over and make me blini for my last breakfast in Russia. I actually started tearing up, it was so sweet of her.

I spent my last day in Petersburg basically running around like a crazy person: packing, returning things to my program office, cancelling my internet, etc. etc. So I was a little frazzled when I called the taxi service to get a taxi to the airport. I also am not the best at speaking on the phone in Russian– it’s much harder to understand what people are saying when you aren’t face-to-face. So, long story short, I accidentally requested a taxi from the airport to my host family’s house, rather than the other way around. Fortunately, my host dad was able to call the taxi service and fix the problem, and I got to the airport with time to spare.

I flew to Tbilisi via Riga (the capital of Latvia) and traveled from St. Petersburg with a bunch of Russians who were also headed to Tbilisi. I struck up a conversation with one of the women, who was happy to point out the direction of the connecting flight, and then asked me where I was from. Without thinking, I said “the US” and she and her friend laughed. “Well, we won’t hold what Obama’s been doing against you,” she said. Whoops. I forgot, momentarily, that US-Russia relations are not the friendliest at the moment.

Despite the fact that the flight from Riga to Tbilisi left at midnight and arrived at 3:30 am, it was the most talkative flight I have ever been on. I thought I had stepped into the middle of a family reunion, but no, it was just a lot of people excited to be going (back) to Georgia. After arriving in Tbilisi I got a taxi from the airport to the center of town, with a super friendly cab driver (fortunately, we both spoke Russian, because I know exactly one word in Georgian.) Along the way, he pointed out to me various Tbilisi landmarks, including the famous “George W. Bush Street,” complete with a large mural of the former president. When I asked “Why him?” my cab driver just shrugged.

I’ve been spending the last few days settling into my apartment here, stocking up on living necessities at the HUGE indoor/outdoor markets in the city. The amount of fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers for sale is still amazing to me. For some reason my computer is not letting me upload photos, so just picture lots of flowers, smoothies, and vegetable platters. The apartment I’m in is small, but comfortable– the only drawback is that all of the neighbors have a really nice view of the entirety of our kitchen from the courtyard, and also, some of the walls are slanted. I’d be more concerned if every other house didn’t also look like it wasn’t adhering to any sort of building codes. My internship starts on Monday– I’m not sure yet exactly what I will be doing for this human rights group, but I will let you know as soon as I find out!

ნახვამდის! (This is apparently “goodbye” in Georgian– just don’t ask me how to say it.)

I’ve been trying to write this post all week, but every time I try I just start getting emotional and overwhelmed. But I’m leaving Russia in a few hours, so it’s now or never. For the past week, I’ve been waking up with the crippling realization that my time here has been coming to an end. On the one hand, I feel like I just got here, and keep thinking to myself “oh, I should go check that out at some point,” not realizing that the time between now and “some point” has decreased dramatically. It didn’t really hit me until we had our “farewell” lunch with our Russian as a Second Language teachers last week that yes, I am actually going to be leaving, and I don’t know when I’ll be coming back.

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On the other hand, when I look back over the past four months, I am kind of amazed at how much I’ve adjusted to life here, and how things that seemed really scary or just generally incomprehensible to me in January are now normal parts of my life. Shouting at the bus driver to stop so that I don’t miss my stop? Sure! Giving people directions? I actually know where things in the city are located and how to get to them now! Explaining to my host mom that it’s warm out and I really don’t need to be wearing a sweater? Well… I didn’t say I was perfect. I still do find myself practicing conversations in my head before I have to talk to anyone new, and my on-the-spot Russian-speaking abilities are still somewhat lacking, but I do think I’ve gotten somewhat better.

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It’s a little bit sad that now that I finally no longer feel like a tourist, I’m packing up to leave. In retrospect, while it wouldn’t have worked out academically for me to spend an entire year here, I still wish I had another semester here. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of life in the city. As of turning in my final paper last night, I am also now a senior in college, which is a terrifying prospect in its own right.I think everyone in my program here has the same vague fear about graduation… what exactly does one do with a Russian degree?

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Last night I checked off one of the final things on my to-do list and stayed out to watch the bridges come up (which happens at 1:25 am). Before that I wandered around the city, saying my last goodbyes. I got rid of all my 10 kopeck coins by throwing them at the Чижик-Пыжик statue, wandered along the canals and through my favorite parks, watched the sun set from one of the bridges, and had a last drink in my favorite cafe. Since all the buses stop running at 12, I had to walk home from watching the bridge come up (about 3 miles.) When I got home at 2:45, there was still light in the western sky:

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I’m sorry that I haven’t been updating this blog with any sort of frequency. I do plan to keep it going while I’m in Tbilisi this summer, recounting my adventures there and (hopefully) catching up on some of my stories from Russia. I wish I had some big, articulate thing to say to sum up my time here, but mostly I am just going to miss it a lot. Even the crazy bus drivers, even run-ins with angry babushki. While overall this semester was nothing like I expected, I honestly can’t think of a single thing I would change. До свидания Питер!

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Ooh, tapeworms! (In which I visit a lot of museums)

About two weeks ago, I realized that after I got back from our group trip to Moscow on May 4, I would have only one month left in Russia. I’m not quite sure how that happened, but I began coping with this realization by freaking out and frantically trying to cram in all the things that I still have on my “To Do/See” list in St. Petersburg. Accordingly, in about a week and a half I  visited the Ethnographic Museum (again,) the Arctic and Antarctic Museum, the Zoological Museum, Chizhik-Pyzhik (Petersburg’s smallest monument,) the Anna Akhmatova house museum, and the Hygiene Museum– all this before going to Moscow and spending another three days sight-seeing.

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I don’t know why it took me so long to visit the Botanic Gardens here, since I was so starved for the sight of green things for the first few months. They had the largest greenhouses I have ever seen, although I contented myself to peeking in through the windows, since it was so pleasant outside that I didn’t want to spend a single moment indoors. The tulips and daffodils were just coming into bloom in the more tended parts of the gardens, and I had to resist the urge to roll around in an unattended field on the outskirts of the garden that was covered in tiny purple and yellow flowers. Shockingly, I even got slightly sunburned, which my host mom continues to insist is impossible in St. Petersburg.

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Things took a turn for the weird at the Zoological Museum and the museum of Hygiene. Now, if you know anything about my from reading this blog, you’ve probably guessed that I can’t just pass up an opportunity to see pickled and otherwise taxidermied things. I was quite entertained by the variety of animals on display at the Zoological museum. They had everything from Peter the Great’s questionably taxidermied horse…

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…to a baby wooly mammoth…

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… an albino penguin…

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… and, of course, chickens, cats, dogs, and other household pets, which were strangely disconcerting:

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And, of course, tapeworms, and a whole second level full of insects!

I was not able to take photos at the Museum of Hygiene, but rest assured that there were even more tapeworms in jars, as well as various preserved diseased and healthy organs, and a distressingly exhaustive catalog of old-fashioned medical devices. On the bright side of things, I got the museum guide in Russian, and so my “organs and various diseases” vocabulary is coming along nicely!

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The Museum of Zoology and the Arctic and Antarctic Museum shared the common feature of the, in my opinion, excessive number of taxidermied baby penguins. I understand the desire to portray animal life in the Antarctic, but do you really need to kill DOZENS of baby penguins in order to do so? I’m surprised that there are any left in the wild at all at the rate these museums must have been appropriating them.

A highlight of the Arctic and Antarctic museum was in the exhibit on Antarctic expeditions on the top floor. In a display case near the center of the room was a set of surgical equipment with a photograph of a Russian man on an Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century performing surgery on his own stomach. While the caption assured that he was using some sort of regional anesthesia, there was no information as to why he was digging around in his own intestines in the first place. I also learned from a photograph of an international Antarctic research expedition that sled dogs are not given a specific nationality, but are considered “citizens of the world,” which I thought was lovely.

I should note that the ticket and bag-check women at the smaller museums like the Hygiene and Arctic museums were some of the nicest museum workers I have met in Russia. I got the impression that there are not a lot of foreign tourists coming to these places (most of the signs on/ literature about the exhibits is exclusively in Russian) and they seemed genuinely happy that I wanted to  I don’t know what exactly I learned about Petersburg or Russia from all of these museum visits, but I have checked a few more things off of my list going into my last month here.

I’ll try to post about our trip to Moscow later this week. До скорого!

Caution, Squirrels!

As I feared, I have been sorely neglecting this blog. In my defense, spring is finally (finally!) here and making it very difficult for me to do anything productive indoors. Exacerbating this is the fact that this is what the sky looked like at 10:30 pm last night:

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The official sunrise today was 6:22 am, and sunset was at 9:30pm, but of course it’s been staying relatively light even later than that. This makes it difficult for me to get work done, as I’d begun using the sunset as a sign that I should maybe get started on my homework.

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I’m restraining myself from sharing with you the approximately 1 million photos I have of buds on trees. I thought I would eventually get tired of seeing these little signs of spring, but several weeks in I am still just as, if not more, excited by every speck of green I see.

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(This is pretty typical.)

I realize that it would be much to difficult to try to fill you all in on every single thing that has happened in the past… month? Two months? So I’ve compiled a list of some of the things that I’ve been up to/ have happened to me. If you would like to hear more about any of these stories, let me know, and I’ll recount the whole thing for you:

  1. 48-hour “spring break” in Riga, Latvia, where I witnessed the closest thing I have ever seen to a miracle (to read about the amazing loss and discovery of my friends’ passports and visas,  check out my friend April’s blog post here!)
  2. Weekend trip to the town of Pskov and surrounding areas (highlights: the sketchiest nightlife of any town I have ever visited, drinking possibly sacred spring water, learning way more than I ever needed to about the personal life of our tour guide.)
  3. Said goodbye to Masha and Lena, who returned to Venezuela,  where Lena’s husband/Masha’s father currently lives. I never got to actually hold Masha, but by the time she left she recognized me and smiled whenever she saw me.
  4. Saw a dead body (This I don’t really want to talk more about, but it was something that happened and I thought I should include it. Don’t worry, it was not anyone I knew.)
  5. American-Russian Easter dinner extravaganza with board games!
  6. Attended midnight Easter Services at Smolny Cathedral (did not stay until the service ended at 4am, however.)
  7. Visited my friends Russian grandparents for Easter and was stuffed full of food.
  8. Performed a scene for theater class that devolved into my lying on the floor and being yelled at/ general screaming. Also was cast in the coveted role of “Sheep #3” in one of our class scenes.
  9. A conversation with my host mom about Ukraine/Crimea  that included the phrase “Well, if America had had to survive World War II the way Russia did, you wouldn’t be so ready to get involved in another war now.”
  10. For those of you who don’t already know, I accepted a summer internship in Tbilisi, Georgia, with a human rights organization there!
  11. And, goal achieved: Got mistaken for a local! By a Russian! (That is, until I started talking… whoops.)

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Let me know if there’s anything else about my time here that you’d like me to talk about!