Thursday, December 27, 2007

Ski Trip

I'm off to Gudauri to ski in the Caucasus mountains. Seeing as I've never skied before, this should be an interesting experience. I'll be back on the 2nd.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Last week, I was notified that my application for admission to Tbilisi State Medical University had finally been approved (this is after attending classes for 10+weeks) by the Ministry of Education ("Everyone was approved") and that now I could sign the contract and pay tuition. This was the first time I had been presented with a choice of whether or not I wanted to be a student. Which got me to think about my reasons for attending the university in the first place, which was not to learn medicine, but rather to:

1)Learn Georgian
2)Meet and make friends with other international students
3)Not lose, and perhaps gain, my pre-medical education from Chicago

The Georgian professor at TSMU, upon realizing that my knowledge of Georgian far exceeds that of any of my classmates, was good enough to challenge me by asking me to memorize extra vocabulary, but this was all that my Georgian class amounted to. In addition, the class only meets once a week for 1.5 hours, hardly enough time for a language class. Meanwhile, at my private lessons I've managed to continue going full steam ahead and within a couple of weeks I will have learned all of Georgian grammar (a scary thought).

During my three months at TSMU as a "free listener," I've been lucky to make friends with some of the other international students (primarily Turks and Indians). For those friendships which aren't limited to the classroom, I have no fear that I won't be able to maintain them outside the university.

If you've followed my previous posts on TSMU, you will know that for the most part, my classes have not been well taught. In fact, some classes almost amounted to torture. I have not gained anything from my classes except for in anatomy. Perhaps my negative impression of the classes has been exacerbated by the academic rigors of the University of Chicago, but even my classmates agree with me that this was worse than they had expected. I've been told that the classes get better in the upper years, but as I'm neither here to learn medicine nor to stay here beyond one year, I could care less.

I've also discovered that there is a dirty business behind the enrollment of most of the students. Almost all of the Indian students came to TSMU through contractors. The contractor guarantees prospective students that they will be admitted (not a hard promise to keep when you're dealing with a university that accepts anyone and everyone) and agrees to process all paperwork for them. The cost for such peace of mind: $5,000. Tuition at TSMU is only $2,000. To top it off, the students are bound to live in a hostel managed by the contractors at a rate of $170/month...

The university itself has some questionable practices which I won't get into here. Both because I've not managed to achieve my goals (except for making friends) and because I don't want my status as an American citizen to help advertise the university, I've decided to cease being a student at the university. Who knew that the bureaucracy surroundinig my admission would actually turn out to be a blessing?

Now I have much more free time which I plan to spend by:

1) Learning Russian. Yesterday, I met with my new Russian tutor and I left quite excited. I will have lessons 4 times a week (like Georgian). Hopefully, my year of Russian back in college will come back to me quickly and in a matter of a couple of months, my Russian will be on par with my Georgian. A long term goal for me is to go to Russia this summer and then take the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing...

2) Increasing my time at Ghudushauri National Medical Center. I know I will know much more about what being a doctor is really like from being with doctors than "studying" at a medical school. Expect more posts soon about my experiences at the hospital.

3) Continuing to teach English. I've added another private student and I may be getting another one soon. I find teaching to be a very pleasant experience and a great opportunity to meet people (for example, I would have never done the Natakhtari commercial if it weren't for my student).

4) Seeing more of Georgia.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Only in Georgia...

...would my voice be considered valuable.

Last Thursday, I made my debut in showbiz as a voice-over in an advertisement for the Georgian Brewery Company, Natakhtari. While their main product is their namesake beer, they also have a very successful line of mostly fruit-flavored sodas (or "lemonades" as the Georgians call it). The flavors include: grape, pear, peach, cherry, apple, tarragon, and cream among others. So successful, in fact, that they've decided to try to market it in the United States.

Which is where I come in. TBC TV Studio is in charge of Natakhtari's new ad campaign, which is meant for both Georgia and the US. The ad is more of an infomercial than your traditional 30-second pitch. It's a 5-minute presentation about the history of and process of making Natakhtari Lemonade, from the crystal clean waters of Natakhtari (it's a town in Georgia) to bottle sizes used.

How did I get this gig? Well, the aunt of one of my students works at TBC TV Studio, and since they needed an American voice... I was asked for the part. Since there aren't as many Americans as you would might expect, connections with someone who knows an American goes a long way here. My recording session only took 30 minutes and involved me reading the entire script twice as well as repeating sections that I got tongue-tied on. I was thrilled to be just a part of the ad, but they actually paid me for my chance at fame ;)

So, if you see an advertisement for Natakhtari Lemonade...

Saturday, December 1, 2007


Here's what I'm trying to juggle so far:
  • Being a full-time student at Tbilisi State Medical University.
  • Volunteering at the Chemistry Institute
  • Volunteering at Ghudushauri National Medical Center (where I was this summer)
  • Teaching English
Studies at TSMU have remained pretty much the same. That's to say that I'm not learning a whole lot from my classes except Anatomy. The other day in Biology practical, my Biology professor (whom I believe hasn't the faintest idea how to teach) decided to give us a practice test which he had written. The first problem was that the test was written in a find-the-mistake format. He had copied passages out of the textbook and intentionally changed terms--not the best way to test someone's knowledge when they haven't been taught it in the first place. To make things worse, some totally irrelevant terms were changed. For example, in a passage about the discovery of protein synthesis, he changed the date from 1950 to 1960--that was the mistake we were to have found.

Work at the chemistry institute has been slow, but you can hardly blame them given the conditions (I promise to take some pictures soon) they work in. Mzia, my chemistry professor, has been having a difficult time synthesizing her desired compound; more than a couple of times she has obtained a product that wasn't what it should have been. At least one of those times was the fault of using old chemicals (stockpiled from the Soviet days) which had since decomposed into something else entirely. I still manage to eat and drink every time I come, and now that wintry weather has arrived (it snowed last week), we've since moved on to spirits to keep ourselves warm.

I haven't yet actually returned to Ghudushauri to volunteer. I visited the hospital last Tuesday to speak with Dr. Merab about the possibility of my returning to volunteer and to ask him to write me a letter of recommendation for medical school. It was a strange experience to see all the people I had worked with for 6 weeks this past summer; some recognized me right off the bat, others didn't but kept glancing towards me trying to remember how they knew me. One huge difference I and my colleagues at Ghudushauri both noticed was how much my Georgian had improved. During my summer internship there, I was forced to communicate through someone that knew English, and therefore wasn't able to get to know many of the doctors and nurses as well as I would have liked. Now that I've made plans to return to Ghudushauri on a regular basis, I plan to get to know everyone better.

Teaching... As inexpensive as it is to live in Georgia, it never hurts to have a little cash on hand. And as it turns out, being a native English speaker in Georgia means you're a hot commodity. As with any non-English speaking country in the world (especially one that's trying to cozy up with the US), English is the new second language. Fortunately, as I've discovered, there are many very qualified Georgians who can teach English grammar quite well. But, thankfully, they understand that there are only some things that a native speaker can teach, such as slang, pronunciation, and conversation. And since there are relatively few native English speakers in Georgia, it wasn't hard for me to find teaching work.

I primarily teach four classes all at one school (it's actually in the teacher's, Anne's, house), once a week where my primary duty is to talk to the students and make them talk back to me. The level of proficiency in English among the four classes ranges from pre-intermediate to upper-intermediate, but even the pre-intermediate students (classifications determined by Anne) have a good grasp of English and don't have too much difficulty in communicating with me. The students are wonderful. In addition to being hard working, they seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about learning English and using it with me. Teaching, as I've discovered, is quite draining. After 4 hours of talking and trying to explain concepts of my language that I've never had to think about before, I feel exhausted.

In addition to my 8 hours a week at Anne's school, I also have an 11-year old private student. He spent the last year in the States where he attended public school and by necessity, went from speaking virtually no English to having a good command of conversational English. His mother, who herself speaks fluent English, doesn't want him to lose the gains he's made in English and has hired me to come twice a week to speak with him and make him read books. I'll be sure to have him read my childhood favorites.

Just a brief snapshot of what's keeping me occupied in Tbilisi. I'll elaborate more when I have some free time.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Giorgoba, Riga

Gilocavt Giorgobas! Today is the feast day of St. George (Giorgi), one of the most important saints for Georgians. It is also the 4th anniversary of the Rose Revolution which swept Saakashvili to power. Either way, today is a reason for all Georgians to celebrate (i.e. drink lots of wine and eat lots of food) and I will surely join them.

I returned from Riga early Monday morning (4 am--almost all flights to/from Tbilisi arrive/leave around then) exhausted yet refreshed and at the same time glad to be back in Tbilisi.

Three days in Riga seemed to be just the right amount of time to explore the old part of the city, where I stayed. The city is relatively small (~700,000) and one can walk from one end of Old Riga to the other in less than 30 minutes. But that's not to say there isn't much to see. The architecture is stunning, from the 13th century Doma Cathedral to the Art Nouveau buildings along Alberta Street. At this time of year, days are short in this city at a latitude greater than 55 degrees; night came at 4:30 and the sun never rose very high in the sky, so that for all of the daylight hours it felt like morning.

When we weren't meandering through the city, Callie (my friend from College) and I visited the Museum of the Soviet Occupation, Museum of War--two museums that detail 800 years of invasion and oppression, not so unlike Georgia--and the Market. The Market is a huge complex of several buildings (it gets to cold to have a year round outdoor market) that sell everything from freshly slaughtered meat to delicious rye bread so dense that you can't compress the bread at all (I bought a 1 kilo loaf that looked half the size of one of our one-pound loaves of bread). Riga is just minutes from the Baltic Sea and fresh caught fish are sold every morning in the market. Fresh milk is sold from large steel drums by the kilo; buyers bring their own containers to take the milk.

Compared to Tbilisi, Riga feels like Western Europe to me. And if it weren't for the large Russian population (about 50% in Riga), most would probably agree with me. It was interesting for me, coming from one former Soviet Republic to another, to see how much more successful Latvia has been in catching up with the rest of Europe in terms of economic growth. Any street in old town looked nicer than the nicest street in Tbilisi. There are malls and grocery stores; Tbilisi has neither (the closest it gets is the bazaar). A great deal of Latvia's success is due to a combination of being closer to the rest of Europe and having only been under Soviet rule for 45 years (as opposed to Georgia's 70), but one still can't help but ask why it's taking Georgia so long. Interestingly, Callie, who's been studying in Prague, felt that Riga was the Eastern European Post-Soviet city she had hoped Prague to be, but apparently isn't.

But I don't want Tbilisi to feel like another Western European city. As beautiful of a city as Riga is, I felt that it didn't have half the character of Tbilisi. True, I was only there for 3 days and could be completely wrong, but I think that along with economic prosperity comes a threat to culture. Sure, Tbilisi is poor but the people are thankful for what they have and know how to celebrate every bit of good fortune that comes there way; strong families and close friends are the result of a necessity to help each other out during difficult times.

I do realize that life is difficult in Georgia and I do hope that Georgia finds economic prosperity, but I just hope that when I return in 20 years I'll still find Old Georgia in the people.

PS All the pictures of army vehicles and soldiers are from the Military Parade, part of the celebrations for Latvian Independence Day.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Off to...

Riga, Latvia!!

I know it sounds totally random, and, well, it is. I'm going there to meet up with a friend from College who's studying abroad in Prague this semester. Since we're both in the same general region of the world, we decided to meet up. Unfortunately, Tbilisi is both expensive to fly to and to fly from. Thanks to former Soviet bloc solidarity, there are relatively cheap flights to Riga... so that's why we're meeting there. I'll only be there for 3 days, but it will be a nice change of pace.

On the political front, things have stayed quiet here. The state of emergency is still in effect, though it's scheduled to be lifted Friday evening. Things don't look good for the opposition, however, which is trying to defeat President Saakashvili in the January 5th snap elections. Imedi TV, the opposition's megaphone, did not only see its equipment destroyed when the police invaded their studio last week (damage that might keep them off the air for three months), but was told yesterday by the Tbilisi City Court that their license to broadcast had been revoked. Meanwhile, the President has had the airwaves to himself, the privilege of an extended state of emergency.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Media blackout, early elections

Continuation of previous post...

One noticeable difference in life in Georgia now is the lack of media. On the evening of November 7, the day of the violent crackdown, riot police entered the building of Imedi TV (one of the main TV stations) and pulled the plug. The same thing happened to the smaller Kavkasia TV. As it happens to turn out, both Imedi and Kavkasia sympathized with the opposition; meanwhile, pro-Government Rustavi and Mze and Government-owned Georgia Public Broadcasting continued to broadcast. Later that evening, Saakashvili placed Georgia under a State of Emergency, declaring that the only GPB would be allowed to broadcast news during the maximum 15-day State of Emergency.

And true to his word, the next day (yesterday) there was no news to be found except on GPB. In my apartment, we have cable which includes CNN and BBC, but even these two channels were removed and replaced instead with an Italian channel and Eurosport respectively. Strangely, neither Imedi nor Kavkasia have returned to the air yet; Rustavi and Mze have remained operational, but they are only broadcasting South American soap operas and reruns of Friends. To add to the information black hole, I was without internet for all of yesterday (just an isolated incident as I found out).

Last night, tensions eased when the President '"yielded"' to the oppositions demands for an early Presidential election. There has been talk that the State of Emergency might be lifted before the end of the maximum 15 days; already, CNN and BBC have returned to cable. I say "yielded" because it's easy to see that Saakashvili is using the early elections to his advantage. First of all, the elections are to be held on January 5th, a date earlier than even the opposition was hoping for, which is less than 2 months away. It's hard to imagine that the currently fragmented opposition can come together and unanimously support one opposition presidential candidate in such a short amount of time. The campaign time is even shorter once you take into account that effectively no campaigning is allowed during the State of Emergency. One can't help but feel that the January 5th election is a strategic move, especially when you realize that Georgia's constitution requires the President to resign 45 days before the election day--which just so happens to be November 22nd, the last day of the 15 day State of Emergency.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Sorry for disappearing for a while--I didn't (and still don't) have internet access at my apartment.

The State of Emergency, by making it an arrestable offense to protest, has put a halt to all demonstrations. In an odd way, life has returned to normal and there's almost a festive atmosphere because the Ministry of Education announced that schools and universities would not resume classes until Monday. For the Georgians I've spoken to, the announcement of the State of Emergency and the restrictions it imposes is no big deal--they're used to this sort of thing happening every few years. (Remember, Georgia is a country that hasn't had a peaceful transition in government since the fall of communism.)

More later.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

If you want the latest info on Georgia...

I've just woken up to discover that the entire country of Georgia has been declared a State of Emergency after a day of riots. I don't know how this will affect my daily life for the next couple of weeks, but I'll be sure to keep y'all informed. Meanwhile, for those wishing to hear the most recent news concerning developments in Georgia, I recommend

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Political Situation

Note: If you are looking for up to date information about the current situation in Georgia, please visit my other blog where I provide translations of Russian and Georgian news items.

As many of you are already aware, the political situation here has become a little tense. Demonstrators, numbering as many as 100,000, depending on whom you ask, turned out last Friday demanding early elections as well as listing grievances committed by the President. Well, they're still protesting (this is day 5), though the numbers have dwindled significantly, but things have taken a more serious turn now that the protesters are demanding that President Saakashvili step down. I'll give a more detailed rundown of what's happened and what's still to unfold later this week. For those wondering, the demonstrations have been peaceful and I'm quite safe!

[Edit: Things are a bit more scary here after riot police used tear gas and water cannons to force the protesters from their camp outside of Parliament. They've regrouped with renewed zeal a few kilometers away.]

Synthesizing in Georgia

As I mentioned in a previous post, my chemistry professor, Mzia, invited me to come work in her laboratory at the Institute for Physical and Organic Chemistry. She had warned me that conditions there were bad: there wasn't always running water, electricity wasn't guaranteed either, heating couldn't be afforded, etc... But I wasn't put off in the least; after all, I'm living in those conditions in my apartment.

Yet when I approached the building for the first time last Friday, I realized that Mzia had made the facilities sound relatively good compared to what I was looking at. The exterior of this soviet-era building is falling apart, and it's even worse on the inside. I entered through a side door and descended a flight of stairs to a poorly lit basement that had large gaping holes in the floor where I rode a rickety elevator to the third floor. I might as well have been in a horror movie. Again, the lighting was poor, but slightly better due to the sunlight streaming through the windows. Mzia gave me a brief tour of her lab (Organic Synthesis) and the lab of her colleague, Roini (considered to be one of the best chemists in Georgia, who, in spite of the conditions, consistently gets better results than his colleagues in Moscow). Besides the overall poor condition of the fume hoods and lab equipment that one would expect from a laboratory that hadn't been upgraded since the soviet-era, I was struck by the dozens of two liter plastic beer and soda bottles. These vessels held precious water. I don't think it needs mentioning, but water is necessary for chemistry. At the institute, water only runs for 3 hours, 3 days a week--that's only 9 hours a week of water! The powers that be at the institute restrict the water supply citing costs; for the same reason, they also forbid heating the building (which is why no one takes off their coat in the lab). Last year, there weren't enough funds even for electricity, so for 5 months, research came to a halt, except in Roini's lab: he used a propane stove to perform most of his experiments and somehow managed to still get good results. As Mzia told me, If you can synthesize in Georgia, you can synthesize anywhere.

Mzia then invited me for some coffee and a chance to review some of her research (currently, synthesizing compounds with anticoagulant and antioxidant properties). I also read one of the lab's research papers still in the drafting stage. I noticed many grammatical mistakes which Mzia kindly allowed me to correct; this is probably how I can help the institute the most. That and perhaps grant writing. She also reminded me that my work would be without pay as the institute did not have funds for another salaried position. She revealed that her monthly salary, as the director of a lab mind you, is $100 (one hundred, in case you thought I left out a zero) and she comes to the institute almost everyday. Shortly, Roini arrived with a liter of Odessa wine, and within a matter of minutes, it was gone--I've almost come to expect now that I'll be drinking in the oddest of places. After what I thought was the last toast, Nino, one of Roini's research assistants, came in to announce that the water had stopped running, and also came bearing another 1.5 liters of wine, which didn't last long either. In spite of downing a liter of wine, I was still conscious enough to say that I would be back the next day to start helping out.

I did come the next day to Roini's lab, where Roini and Nino had already been working for a few hours. Roini wasn't in best form because apparently, the day before, after drinking with me, he went to a friend's birthday party where he drank 5 (!) more liters of wine and was paying for it now with a hangover. Therefore, Nino and I (to some extent) took over the experiment, which mainly involved pouring water from a plastic bottle into a funnel to feed water to the condenser. Nino knows very good English and has been kind and patient enough to explain the experiment in detail (we're synthesizing a ruthenocene derivative). When things slowed down, Nino prepared a lunch of fried potatoes, cheese, and various pickled vegetables for the three of us (yes, there is a small kitchen in the laboratory). And of course, Roini brought out another liter of wine. I think I'm going to like working here...

Ministry of Education/Bureaucracy

Although I have been attending classes at TSMU for almost 6 weeks now, I am still not officially enrolled. When I submitted my application materials to the University in mid-August, the head of Admissions informed me that all applicants must be approved by the Ministry of Education in order to be admitted. I wasn't worried at the time because I knew I was a well-qualified applicant (having already completed two years of college--most of the applicants just graduated from secondary school) and had gone through all the bureaucratic mess (or so I thought) of among other things, getting an official transcript sent to Georgia, translated, and notarized.

But when I returned to Georgia at the end of September, I discovered that my application still hadn't been approved. I was told that my application couldn't be approved until my transcript was verified. What?! The whole point of having an official transcript (one that was translated and notarized to boot) is to avoid having to verify its authenticity. I didn't take much action, thinking that this bureaucratic mess would just untangle itself; after all, many of my classmates were in the same situation and they had to be admitted sooner or later, right? Moreover, for me, being a student at TSMU is just a small part of my whole Georgia experience--no big deal if it doesn't work out for some reason. But for my classmates, this was a big deal. They had come from as far as India with the sole intent of studying medicine--not to experience Georgian culture or to learn Georgian--and yet the University, now six weeks into the semester, still has not given the word on their admission. We are in a bureaucratic limbo.

That's why last Wednesday a fellow classmate and I decided to go in person to the Ministry of Education and get some real answers. I went armed with phone and fax numbers of the Office of the Registrar at the UofC (having also sent them emails describing my situation) and another official copy of my transcript. But I hardly needed anything. A woman named Maia apparently held all the decision making power, and when I showed her my official transcript (which they already had) that I had brought, she said that I should have no problem being approved. The same went for my classmate. I almost wish there would have been more of a struggle because then I could feel as though I had accomplished something; instead, I left with an even greater distaste for bureaucracy and its inefficiency.

Friday, November 2, 2007

What you have to look forward to:

This weekend has been and will be a busier one than usual; and as a result, I don't have the time I usually do to write my weekly post in its full 1200+ word glory. I hope to find time by Tuesday to write it. Here's what you can expect:
  • Visit to the Ministry of Education
  • Visit to the Institute of Physical and Organic Chemistry, where I will be working, and my, let's just say, very warm welcome.
  • The 100,000+ demonstrators in front of Parliament on Friday
  • Trip to Sighnaghi on Sunday for Giorgi'a birthday party
  • And probably more

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Word of the Day: დამეხმარე (damexmare)

Definition: Help me!

Any one who has visited Tbilisi and walked down any of the popular streets or through a pedestrian underpass has certainly heard this word. It is the plea uttered by the countless beggars of Tbilisi.

The beggars can be classified into 3 categories: 1) Widows and the Disabled 2) Unemployed Georgians 3) Gypsies

The widow beggars are easily identified by their worn faces, black dress, and black headscarves. Most of the widows are too feeble to actively walk the street begging (and obviously, neither are the disabled); instead, they sit on the steps leading down to the pedestrian underpasses or on street corners. Most don't even utter a word, only holding out an outstretched hand or a container with an icon taped to it. Most of these widows either have no children to take care of them or children who are too poor themselves. A similar story goes for the disabled. Georgia does have a pension program, but it is a joke. All pensioners are guaranteed a monthly allowance of 25 laris (roughly $15), only enough to buy a loaf of bread each day. And even this petty amount is a huge increase from Shevardnadze's time only 4 years ago--it was 7 laris per month then. Of all the beggars, these widows deserve help the most.

Georgia has a high unemployment rate. Official reports put the figure at 12.6%, but most agree that it is actually higher. What is unusual about Georgia's unemployed is that just as many of them are educated as uneducated--perhaps even more with such a large demand for construction workers in the current housing boom. For an unemployed men, there seems to be several stages before they hit beggarliness. First, he tries to find construction work as a day laborer. You can tell if a man by the side of the street is day laborer if he has a drill displayed in front of him. If that doesn't work out, then he might collect glass bottles, or if he's musically inclined, play in the Metro station. If all else fails, he will beg. Most are too ashamed and hide their faces; their hands outstretched, sitting next to the widows.

Gypsies (ბოშები) is a misnomer because the Gypsies of Tbilisi are not related in any way to the Gypsies (Roma) of Europe. Like their Roma cousins, these Gypsies have their own culture and speak their own language. The Gypsies of Tbilisi thrive off of others through begging and occasionally theft. Most of the Gypsies one encounters in Tbilisi are either children or young mothers, both of whom attract a great deal of sympathy--which is exactly what the Gypsy clan wants. As desperate as these children may appear, it would be a mistake to give money to them because it is a well known fact that the money these children receives goes not to themselves, but to rich Gypsy men. For this very reason, The Cathlicos-Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, himself has instructed Georgians not to give money to the Gypsy children. But the Gypsies are very persistent beggars and smart beggars, and will chase people they suspect are the most sympathetic (foreigners automatically fall into this category) or annoy someone until he pays. Some of them even resort to scare tactics, such as threatening to touch someone with their spit-covered hands or to put a curse on them if they don't pay.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Georgian Word of the Day

I thought I would add a bit of variety to my blog and start a series of smaller posts each dedicated to a particular Georgian word that I feel is worth writing about.

Today's word: magari (by the way, Georgian makes no distinction between upper and lower cases)

Magari is an adjective literally meaning "hard, firm, or solid," but I've almost never heard it used this way. The first time I remember hearing this word was when I visited the Gergeti Trinity Church in Kazbegi last July. I'm sure I had heard the word before then, but it was used that day by so many of the pilgrims when they finished the climb and beheld the church in it's foggy glory for the first time. Over and over again I heard "magaria, magaria" (The "a" added to the end of adjectives and nouns is an abbreviation for the verb "aris," "it is."). At that point in my language studies, I wasn't even aware of the dictionary definition of "magari," but even if I had been, I wouldn't have known what to make of it (Yes, the church is solid??).

Later that day at a restaurant, I heard "magari" used to describe food. "Es magari puria" (this is _____ bread) and "magari khinkali" -- I knew that neither was "firm or solid;" at that point, I asked my teacher, Nana, what "magari," or as an exclamation, "magaria," meant. The answer: it's an exclamation of surprise and satisfaction--similar to our "amazing."

Since that day, it seems like I hear "magari" in every other sentence. Indeed, it's the current "in" word. But that's not to say that "magari" can't be used for it's literal meaning. Just today, I told my homestay "mom" that the cheese she served me was "magaria." "No," she quickly corrected me (in Georgian, of course), "it's not firm at all--it's a soft gouda."

Friday, October 26, 2007

Week in Review

Went to Tbilisoba, the annual festival celebrating the city. Unfortunately, there were many thousands of people and not much to do (unless looking at carved fruits is your thing). There was no shortage, however, of churchkhela, the snack made of hazelnuts or walnuts dipped in grape syrup (it tastes about as you would imagine it, though not very sweet--you can see me biting down on one at my flickr site), as vendors sold every imaginable variety throughout the fairgrounds. By the time evening arrived, Rustaveli, the main street in Tbilisi, was shut down as thousands gathered to watch a concert given by the Italian group Ricce e Poveri (I've never heard of them before). I made the smart decision of getting back home and watching the concert on TV before the city's public transportation system became overwhelmed.

My first class on Monday is Biology practical. The goal of our practical lessons is to discuss in more detail what was covered in lecture. My lecture is given by one professor and my practical session is led by another. Prof. Dato, my practical professor, is a nice guy who is quite enthusiastic about biology, but he doesn't know a thing about teaching. Again, the lack of textbooks makes teaching difficult in the first place, but even so, Prof. Dato never has a lesson plan for us and instead discusses what he wants to discuss. For me, this makes class more interesting, as I've already studied the material, but for my classmates, it's an utter disaster. He's obsessed with his out-of-date biology computer programs, and inevitably we gather around his equally out-of-date computer (it runs on Windows 98!) to watch animations about the construction of the cell-membrane. Then there are pointless tasks, such as last week, when he had me memorize in class a list of organisms and their corresponding genome sizes.

This leads me to a general statement about the quality of education at TSMU: It's not very good. I do find Anatomy(the practical portion of it, anyway) and physics to be well taught, as are the language classes. As for chemistry, our professor is quite bright and and a good teacher, but she is faced with the impossible task of teaching all of general inorganic chemistry in one semester. In Biology, as I've already described, the professors lack basic teaching skills. In History of Medicine... well, just read my previous post. But, as our physics professor confided in us, the English-language program (i.e. for international students) is far much better than the Georgian-language program. It's impossible to teach the Georgians, he says, because there is chaos in the classroom and a general lack of effort; a consequence of letting 16 and 17 year olds study medicine. Not surprisingly, very few Georgians from TSMU make it into residency programs in the US, and those that do, do so by working on their own.

When I walked into Anatomy lecture, I was surprised to see that the number of Indian students had doubled. Apparently, 20+ Indians just arrived a few days earlier, having been delayed by visa issues. I also met one new student from Pakistan. With so many more students, lectures have only become louder and more likely to be interrupted by a Bhangra ring tone. Perhaps due to ethnic exclusivity or more simply because I am in a "Turkish group", I haven't had a chance to get to know well any of my Indian classmates; by contrast, I have several good Turkish friends.

Georgian lessons with Nana:
Four times a week I'm reminded how insane a language Georgian is. Here's an example: In the present and future tenses, the verb "to do or make" (akateb) takes a nominative subject, but in the past tense, the subject is in the ergative case, not the nominative. Here's another: the verb "to eat" (chame) takes a dative object in the present and future, but in the past tense, the object (i.e. what's being eaten) is in the nominative case!! And in the pronunciation department, having to distinguish between 3 k's, 3 ch's, 2 t's, 2 ts's, 2 p's, and 2 r's... In spite of all of the challenges that Georgian presents, I'm actually doing quite well and if things continue as they are, I'll finish the program I've been learning from by the end of the year (meaning I'll have learned all of Georgian grammar).

Had another plagiarism-filled History of Medicine class, only after the professor showed up 45 minutes late. Also had my first Russian class of the semester (TSMU requires all international students to study 3 languages: Georgian, Latin, and either Russian, German, or French) which looks to be promising. The teacher knows hardly any English (to give you an idea, my Georgian is better than her English) so we are immersed in Russian. Luckily for me, I studied some Russian back at Chicago, so I wasn't totally lost and was able to help out my Turkish group-mates.

Had another worthwhile Anatomy practical session. Manana, my teacher, insists that I know the vertebral column better than she does so whenever there is a student who has just joined the group (at least 3 or 4 have done so) and doesn't know what we covered from week one (the vertebral column), she assigns me the task of explaining the entire vertebral column to the unfortunate student. After having to explain it so many times, I almost do feel like an expert on the vertebral column...

All of our practical classes consist of two 45-minute halves with a ten minute break between. For most students, break means a chance to smoke. Well more than 50% of students smoke, a habit that is much more affordable in Georgia considering that a pack of cigarettes can cost as little as a dollar. During break, I leave the classroom with my classmates to stand outside and watch them smoke (I have no intention to start smoking!).

During Chemistry practical on Thursday, our chemistry professor, Mzia, joined me and my friends during our "smoke break." After some introductions, which included the discovery by Mzia that I was from America--a moment that always makes the professor say "Really!!"--and a brief conversation among the smokers about what the world's come to if you can't smoke inside public buildings (you can in Georgia, though), I discovered that Mzia is the director of organic synthesis at some laboratory (forgot the name). When I told her that I loved organic synthesis (yes, I know, I'm weird), she said that there would be no problem if I wanted to volunteer (they don't have much funds) in her lab. She said that working in the lab is always an interesting experience because there isn't always water and electricity, and in the winter, there is virtually no heating.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The History of Medicine

Tbilisi State Medical University requires all first year students to take History of Medicine. In principle, it is a good idea, but… As I mentioned in my previous post on TSMU, textbooks are non-existent, which makes teaching history rather difficult. The professor’s solution is quite simple, but extremely boring: read out loud from his tattered photo-copied book. A word about the professor: He looks to be about in his late 50s or early 60s, always dresses well, and speaks in a thick accent. Virtually all of my classmates agree that the class is a complete waste of time, not because they don’t value the subject, but because they cannot understand a word he says half the time. He demands absolute silence when he is “lecturing,” yet when his cell phone rings in class, he doesn’t hesitate to interrupt class to take his call (a habit not unique to this professor, unfortunately). Not one to waste time, I’ve managed to block out the drone of the professor’s voice whilst I do my Georgian homework.

Either to make class more interesting or perhaps just to give his voice a break, or both, the professor announced at our first class that each student will be required to write a 5 page report and give a 10-15 minute presentation on a topic relating to the history of medicine. Many of the Indian students were assigned topics relating to traditional Indian medicine; the Turkish students, Turkish medicine; the few Georgian students, Georgian medicine; and as for myself: pre-Colonial American Medicine.

Knowing that many of my classmates have difficulty comprehending English, I wondered how they would manage to write a research paper. They managed perfectly fine, as I discovered at the first day of presentations—with the aid of the internet, that is. I asked Ahmet, the first student to give a presentation, how much time it took him to write his paper. “It was very easy,” he said “all I did was find the information on the internet and copy it into Word.” I was too naïve to consider the possibility that most students would resort to plagiarism to accomplish what for them is this nearly impossible task. At least Ahmet knew English well enough and had practiced his presentation enough times that he delivered his plagiarized research as though it were his own; the “Cuba girl” didn’t fare as well.

The second presentation was on the topic of medicine in Cuba. Unfortunately, the “researcher,” a Turkish girl wearing a red bandana on her head and a t-shirt depicting a caricature of Castro, copied the wrong source from the internet: an obviously biased source, probably from the Cuban government itself. For 15 minutes, we sat through a passionate (in words, not delivery) testimony to the superior quality and low cost of Cuban medicine. As if that weren’t enough to convince a listener of plagiarism, every once in a while there would be a sentence that went like this: “Because of the low cost and equal if not superior quality of medical education in Cuba, we now even have low-income students from the US studying in Cuba…” When she had finished, the professor asked her out-right if the work was hers, and after having the question translated by one of her Turkish friends, she said “of course,” handing her hand-written/copied report to the professor as evidence.

At the conclusion of the “Cuba girl’s” presentation and with five minutes left in the class, the professor polled the class on where we were from. Responses of “India” and “Turkey” filled the room, and then one student said “There is one American.” As if on cue, heads began to turn in search of this American. Frankly, I had assumed that word had spread and that everyone knew by now that there was an American in their midst. I confessed that I was indeed the American, which immediately led to a lot of introductions from classmates.

One of my new acquaintances took things a step further by inviting me to a Turkish restaurant. I half-heartedly agreed, because on the one hand I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to make another friend, but on the other, I feared that I was being singled out solely for my being American. After my last class of the day, Latin (another bore), I met Necip at the gates of the University as we had agreed. We greeted one another Turkish style: by touching first our left cheeks and then right cheeks together (Georgians, by contrast, greet each other with a kiss on the cheek). Necip first apologized for his poor English, but he actually speaks quite well, especially when one considers that he has only studied the language for two years. Next, Necip told me how humble I was, saying that most of the Americans he’s made contact with think very highly of themselves. I didn’t know quite how to take this compliment, but I did feel surer that Necip’s offer of friendship was genuine.

At the restaurant, Necip was a great host, ordering a delicious meal of lentil soup, Turkish-style shwarma, baklava, and Turkish tea. During the course of our meal, we kept our conversation simple, discussing our families and studies at the university, Necip making use of his mini-dictionary and phrasebook when he grasped for words. Necip is from Bursa, a Turkish city south of Istanbul. I discovered that Necip’s father, a coal miner, is Kurdish. Necip is also a dedicated student, telling me that he puts studying before all else (and it pays off for him: he got the highest score on our chemistry quiz). We left the restaurant our separate ways, but not before promising another outing in the near future. It’s meeting people like Necip that makes being a student at TSMU all the worth while.

Bodbe, take 3

Last weekend I made the trip to Kakheti once again. This time, I was invited by my Georgian teacher, Nana, to join her band of friends and visit Bodbe Monastery and the town of Sighnaghi. This past summer, I participated in two of Nana’s trips: one to the mountains and Gergeti Trinity Church, the other to Bodbe Monastery, where we were going again. As I had been to Bodbe twice before and had seen all there is to see, I was a bit reluctant to go, but Nana convinced me by telling me that there would be Georgians my age coming, too. Not one to turn down opportunities to meet new people, I signed up.

Of the five young people that Nana had promised, I got to know Nick and Lika, two 19-year old university students, the best. They also happened to speak the most English, a fact that constantly bothers me and compels me to study Georgian more. Nick and Lika are successful ski instructors in Gudauri and recently, they have created their own travel agency targeted primarily at Georgian students who wish to see more of their own country. One travel package they gave as an example seemed too good to be true: 10 days in Gudauri with food, lodging, skis, and instruction—all for 350 GEL, or approximately $215.

If you’re interested in Bodbe Monastery, please read my previous posts. We didn’t see as much there this time because there were huge crowds of people as part of the Svetitskhovloba (day honoring the “life-giving pillar” in Mtskheta) celebrations. Next, we visited Sighnaghi. The last time I had been in Sighnaghi, the city was a mess as hundreds of workers were working around the clock to complete a government-funded renovation of the city in time for the ribbon-cutting this month. The aim was to make the town look as it did in the 18th or 19th centuries in order to attract tourists, and seeing Sighnaghi today, they’ve done a pretty good job. Already, western tourists can be seen walking the streets with their cameras hanging from their necks. Go to my flickr site to see the new Sighnaghi and if you dig deep enough, you’ll find pictures of dusty Sighnaghi from this summer.

We did manage to visit a part of Kakheti I had never seen before. One of our party knew that there were two monasteries somewhere up in the mountains, so we set off to find it. Just outside the monastery, we met one of the monks and he was kind enough to give us a personal tour of the grounds. First we visited the convent, on the grounds of which stood a church dating back to the 9th century. A few hundred meters up the mountain from the convent was the men’s monastery. The 12th century church there still had frescoes dating from its construction. Both the convent and the monastery were set against the beautiful backdrop of the changing foliage. [Pictures soon to be on flickr site]

Friday, October 12, 2007

Studying at TSMU

Tbilisi State Medical University’s main campus is located on Vaja-Pshavela Avenue in the Saburtalo district of Tbilisi, a couple miles west of downtown. The campus itself is quite small, consisting of only 3 large white buildings which, together with the street, enclose the “grounds” (nothing more than a few trees and benches). The university is divided into several departments of instruction: the faculties of medicine (by far the largest), dentistry, public health, and various graduate programs in the sciences. All in all, the university enrolls approximately 5,000 students.

TSMU is considered to be a prestigious medical university within Georgia, and during the Soviet era, was considered to be only second to Moscow. Georgian students who wish to enroll at TSMU must perform spectacularly on the National Exams. For international students such as myself, however, the only requirement is $2,000 and a transcript—and approval by the Minister of Education, a feat which I’ve found to be terribly frustrating as I and many of my classmates still haven’t been “approved.”

Medical education in Georgia is a six-year process as opposed to our four. In Georgia, students go straight to medical school after graduating from high school—there is no college intermediate. So in reality, the first two years at TSMU closely resemble a pre-med program (i.e., theory classes such as chemistry, physics, biology, etc…) at a US college. Since I’m halfway through my own pre-med college education, I am already quite familiar with most of the material being taught. But that’s ok, because I’m here to learn Georgian and experience Georgia—not to get my medical education from Georgia. Why, then, am I a student at TSMU? For three reasons: 1) it’s a cheap way to learn Georgian (the $2,000 includes Georgian language classes) 2) as I am a pre-med student who has taken a leave of absence from the University of Chicago, I won’t be rusty when I return and 3) this is a unique opportunity to be an international student and meet other students from around the world in a setting where I’m also an outsider.

For those who might be wondering how I and the rest of the international student population manage to study medicine in Georgian, a language one wouldn’t learn unless in Georgia, the instruction for international students (and a handful of Georgian students with aspirations to leave Georgia for further medical studies or residency) is in English. Because of this, we international students are effectively isolated from the Georgian students. And within our own little world, we are further isolated into groups: each group, usually consisting of 10 students, takes all the same classes together. Only during lectures do all groups mingle. In a way, it is nice to be in groups because I know that our group will become very close-knit.

Overwhelmingly, my first-year classmates (totaling around 40 students) come from one of two countries: either India or Turkey. It makes sense that there would be a sizeable portion of students coming from neighboring Turkey, but as for the Indians, the only rationale I have for their coming in such large numbers is that Georgia is the closest “European” (technically, it’s in Asia) country to India. There is one Thai, and technically speaking, a German and another American, but they don’t count—they were both born in Georgia and speak fluent Georgian. I’m the only first-year student born west of Turkey.

I did get a chance to meet three upperclassmen from Trinidad and Tobago, but as far as I know, I’m the only true American at the university, a fact that’s always begs the question: “So, why in the world would you ever come to TSMU?” Before they jump to the conclusion that I must be some failure who couldn’t get accepted at an American institution, I explain that I’m here for Georgia, not for medicine. Which of course leads to the next question: “Why would you ever want to come to Georgia in the first place? And why of all things would you want to learn Georgian!?” I try my best to explain that I like Georgia for its people and culture, but more often than not I still see “he’s crazy” in their eyes.

In return, I like to ask my colleagues the very same question of why they are at TSMU. The majority of responses go like this: “I didn’t do well enough on the national exams back in Turkey/India to study at a Turkish/Indian school, but if I study well for two or three years here in Tbilisi, I can go back home and complete my education there.” As one of my Turkish group-mates put it to me during a particularly boring Physics class, “Four questions. If I hadn’t missed four questions [on the national exam], I would be in Turkey right now.” The same story goes for Sopho, the Georgian-German student; as for Nick, the Georgian-American who graduated from an American high school, he hopes to get ahead of the game by graduating from medical school and entering a US residency program two years before his American counterparts. No one, it seems, intends to stay at TSMU for the full six years; even Nick plans to transfer to a private institution in Tbilisi (Aieti) which has a better track record of putting its students into US residency programs.

There are eight other students in my group: six Turks (Merve, Irmak, Serhat, Ertan, Muhammet, and Saliha—these are approximations of spellings at best!), Sopho, the pseudo-German, and one Indian student whose name I have yet to learn. My group is relatively diverse: the other groups tend to be made up of entirely one ethnic group (i.e. Turkish or Indian) or the other. Perhaps it would have been better if the university mixed things up a bit, but they are practical considerations to be taken into account. Not the least of which is language barriers. While the university requires all international students to be proficient in English, it does not require TOEFL, for example, as a means of assessing such proficiency, and as I’ve discovered within my own group, many of the students struggle with English. By having groups of Turks or Indians (I’ve noticed that the Indians tend to be more proficient), chances are that one of them knows English well enough to translate for his or her group-mates. In addition, it is difficult for a Turkish student to understand an Indian student and vice versa because of their respective accents. I have found myself playing the role of translator, too: some of our professors have thick Georgian accents, intelligible to me, but utterly unintelligible to my classmates.

Lectures are a cacophony of not only thick Georgian accents and the Turkish/Indian accented translations, but also of general classroom disruption. I was shocked to find how disrespectful my classmates were when they talked in not-so-hushed tones about who-knows-what (i.e. because it was in Turkish or Hindi), but even more surprising was the fact that the professors did nothing about it other than to occasionally ask the class to be a little quieter (one exception is my History of Medicine Professor—he is quite strict and made it clear during the first class that he is the only one allowed to speak). Another annoying habit is the tendency of the Indian students to shout out what they thought the next words of the professor were going to be. My first physics lecture was a chorus between the slow voice of the professor and the sharp voice of one particularly confident Indian (he did make the mistake, after the professor wrote Force=m*a on the chalk board, of shouting out “Force equals mass times area”). And then there is the Turkish girl, knowing little English, who, upon hearing an English word she recognizes, parrots it, as if doing so will help her better understand the lecture.

As a first-year student, I’m taking Anatomy, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History of Medicine, Georgian Language, Latin Language, and will soon be taking Russian (the University requires a foreign language other than Georgian). Both anatomy and physics are entirely new subjects for me, and luckily, I consider my anatomy and physics classes to be the best taught. Manana (and no, her name doesn’t rhyme with banana), my anatomy instructor (she doesn’t lecture; rather, she has the more time-consuming job of teaching the individual groups) has a straightforward way of teaching anatomy which I appreciate. Right now, we’re learning the skeletal system and Manana teaches it by explaining all the parts of whichever bone we might be studying, gives us 5 minutes to memorize it, and then expects us to be capable of repeating what she had just told us. She begins every class by putting each of us on the spot and asking about material from day one.

Everyday I’m made aware of how poor the university and its students are compared to what I’ve experienced in the US. Graffiti-ed walls and broken desks aside, I was first struck by the absence of textbooks. Because of prices that make even US students groan, professors don’t expect their students to buy textbooks; instead, everyone makes copies of the precious few textbooks in the library—if they’re even there. The university has a dedicated copying office that is constantly busy copying thousands of pages each day. Computers, of course, are quite rare, but I was surprised to discover that virtually no one owned a scientific calculator. At the University of Chicago, chemistry required that you own a scientific calculator to calculate logarithms and perform other functions; yet at yesterday’s chemistry lecture, the professor pulled out her logarithm table and wrote on the chalk board those logarithmic calculations were we expected to know—even more surprising was the chorus of Indian voices following the moving chalk.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rtveli: Vintage in Kakheti

Fr. Theodore owns a small 1 hectare (2.47 acres) vineyard in the province of Kakheti near the town of Tbani. Kakheti is the Napa Valley of Georgia; the best wines of Georgia (Georgian wines themselves considered to be among the best in the world) come from this province situated 1.5 hours east of Tbilisi at the footsteps of the Caucasus. Viticulture has a long history in Georgia, going back thousands of years, and has produced several hundred unique varieties of wine.

If you couldn’t guess, wine plays a central role in Georgian culture. For those who’ve read about my earlier adventures will know that it’s nigh impossible to have a Georgian meal without draining a pitcher of wine. As you might expect from a culture in which drinking is a part of daily life, people drink responsibly; drunkenness is frowned upon. At more formal dinners, known as supras, which can last several hours and even days (I haven’t yet had the pleasure (?) of attending one of these marathon events), drinking is coordinated by the tamada, or toastmaster. It is the tamada’s job to make sure that everyone is a bit buzzed but no more by limiting alcohol intake to the toasts he carefully spaces out. Usually, the less hangover-inducing white wine is imbibed at supras instead of red wine (“black wine” in Georgian).

Back to the vineyard. This is the time of year for the harvesting (vintage; “rtveli” in Georgian) of grapes and subsequent wine making, and Fr. Theodore invited me along with some other mostly American guests to take part in this ancient tradition. We left Tbilisi a little past 8 am. I rode in a hired Marshrutka along with two young Georgian artists, part of the Perdue family, and Anne Brown and her son Kevin. The rest of our convoy was made up of two Toyota Land Cruisers: one driven by Fr. Theodore, carrying Giorgi, the rest of the Perdue family, Giorgi’s cousin Kaki, and two professional photographers from Russia; the other by John Hanson, carrying his newlywed Georgian wife, Salome, and his brother, Eric. John works for USAID. Mike Perdue has a background in dairy farming in Iowa, but wanting to do something different, is hoping to start a livestock business in Georgia. Anne Brown and her husband John are from Nashville and have been in Tbilisi since January. John is a retired judge who is volunteering his time to help the struggling judicial system in Georgia.

Before arriving at the vineyard, we stopped at a roadside restaurant to have a hearty brunch of mtsvadi (shish-kebab), bread, cucumber and tomato salad, cheese, and buffalo yogurt. Stuffed, we continued along the highway, watching herds of sheep, goats, and stray donkeys out the windows. Fr. Theodore’s one hectare vineyard is but one among a sea of vineyards in the valley. The vineyard has been in Fr. T’s possession for almost 6 years, but each year his vines have born fewer and fewer grapes. This year, his vine master, Gela, tried something different, pruning the vines such that that more shade would be available for the grapes on the north-facing side—more grapes, fewer raisins. And indeed it worked. Luckily for us grape-pickers, only half of the one hectare had vines bearing grapes; the other half contained immature vines planted last year. Nonetheless, the vines in the half-hectare (~1.25 acres) produced over three tons of rkatsiteli (a white grape) grapes.

We were quickly put to work, separated into teams of three, each armed with a sharp knife. We sweated under the heat and occasionally cut ourselves with our knives. The juice from the sweet grapes quenched our thirst and staunched the flow of blood from any cuts. In all, there were approximately 15 of us working half of the vineyard; the other half worked by a half-dozen local women. Many hands make light work and within a couple of hours we had completed the harvesting of the grapes, packed them into plastic bags, and loaded them onto an ancient truck.

Next, we drove a short distance to Gela’s house where the rest of the winemaking would take place. Gela’s marani, or wine cellar, is attached to his house and directly across from his pig-sty. The main features of a marani are the kvevri and the crushing trough (I know neither the Georgian name nor the correct English viticulture term for it). Kvevri are large clay pots buried up to their openings in the ground. It’s in these kvevri that the wine is fermented. Gela’s marani holds kvevri ranging in size from a mere few hundred liters up to 1600 liters—the largest about six feet deep and the opening large enough for a slender man to slip inside. The trough is a marvel. Measuring 15 feet long by 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, it was carved from one oak tree more than 3 generations ago. It took 18 strong men to move the trough into the marani.

Now was the fun part. In all, we had more than 90 bags of grapes, each weighing approximately 40 kg. We carried 8 or 9 bags at a time from the truck and dumped them into the trough, and… Yep, we crushed them with our bare feet. For the first crushing, a wild herb was added to the bottom of the trough. The herb is supposed to give white wine many of the healthy properties of red wine. 4 or 5 people stood in the trough at a time. When the fresh plump grapes are first dumped, everyone simply treads on the grapes. The experience is almost like being on a stair-stepper at the gem: you pull your feet out of the grape muck (it isn’t very pretty) and up onto the mound of uncrushed grapes and you sink back into the muck. The work is much more fun than it sounds, especially with a glass of wine in hand. After grape mound has been beaten into a juicy pulp, the work is divided into two groups: those who are at the end of the trough and those towards the center. Those at the end continuing squishing the grapes, trying to squeeze as much juice out of the grapes as possible; those in the middle have the job of preventing the pulp from sliding away from the squisher so that only the juice flows down and out the spigot (basically, keeping the spigot from getting clogged). The juice flows down a wooden chute directly into the kvevri When 95% of the juice has been squeezed out, the remaining pulp is scooped into buckets and dumped into the kvevri. Everything from the grape—juice, skins, seeds, and stems—ultimately ends up in the same place. After the first fermentation (about a week), the pulp will have settled to the bottom and the new wine is ladled out into new kvevri where it will undergo further fermentation. The pulp is not thrown out; instead, it is distilled to make chacha, a very strong brandy.

Our wonderful experience in Kakheti ended with a cookout under the stars (and at least one shooting star) at Fr. Theodore’s cottage. We ate mtsvadi, cooked by Giorgi over grape vines, cheese, and bread. And of course, we drank wine.

As always, visit my flickr site for photos (

Friday, October 5, 2007

Back in Tbilisi

I’m writing this post in Tbilisi. For those who have been following my blog since its inception, you may have noticed that during the middle of July, the name of my blog changed from “A Summer in Georgia” to “A Summer (?) in Georgia.” No, that wasn’t the result of an HTML script error—it was intentional and the change reflected an idea I began flirting with: what if my experience of Georgia weren’t limited to a summer? What if I took a year off of college to study in Georgia? From my blog posts, you can tell that I was having the best summer ever. I found that I had fallen in love with all aspects of Georgia: its people, food, culture, sights, language, and even the unpredictability of Georgian life.

I should say that this idea was originally not mine. One of my Georgian teachers, Nana, told me during one of my lessons that it would be a shame if I stopped my lessons after only 5 weeks as I was making much progress. And indeed, I too thought it would be a shame to lose what I had worked so hard to gain. With my increasing knowledge of Georgian, I began to speak with Georgians (albeit my conversations were simple) in Georgian. This seemingly simple act enabled me to see Georgia from a Georgian’s perspective. I felt less like a tourist and more like a Georgian.

Nana suggested that I come back in September and study at the medical university and continue taking lessons. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done. I returned to the states on the 28th of August as I originally planned to spend 3 ½ weeks with my family in Rugby. Not once during my summer in Georgia did I feel homesick, yet it wasn’t until I returned to Rugby that I truly realized what I missed most about home; namely, my mother’s cooking, my pets, the isolated world that is Rugby, and of course just being with my family. When the time for me to leave neared, I’ll admit there were moments that I felt like I didn’t want to leave home (But I always feel this way at this time of year when I have to go back to college…).

Before I could go back to Tbilisi, I had to go to Chicago to take care of several tasks. First and foremost was that I had to formally declare to the University of Chicago that I was taking a leave of absence. In addition, I had to retrieve some items I had left in storage (namely winter clothing and textbooks), meet with people interested in my summer activities, and, most important for me, say good-bye to my friends. My 3 days in Chicago seemed so surreal as I watched my friends prepare for the start of the quarter—I could already sense the stress that is characteristic of life at the UofC in my friends as they discussed their classes. I was almost glad that I wouldn’t be a UofC student this year. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a student at the UofC. I take pride in being part of a student body that puts academics before all else—but there’s no getting around the fact that life at the UofC is draining.

After one last all too familiar lunch at Pierce (my cafeteria), I said one last good-bye and headed off to O’Hare. Those familiar with my first hectic journey to Tbilisi will be happy to hear that I had a very enjoyable flight. Other than a 1-hour delay in O’Hare (what can you expect?), my Chicago-Vienna-Tbilisi flights couldn’t have been better (Ok, a direct flight would have been better). My itinerary gave me 12 hours with which to explore the city of Vienna; I used 6 hours of it and would have used more if I hadn’t been wearing only a t-shirt (I wasn’t prepared for the 55 F temperatures). Vienna is a great city to explore if one has only a few hours to do so. I saw most of the major sites (Stephansdom, Hofburg Palace…) as I walked through the old part of the city before I got too cold and took refuge in the Natural History Museum, where I spent more than 2 hours admiring everything from the meteorite collection to the stuffed elephants.

I arrived in Tbilisi the morning (4 am) of the 27th and was greeted as I was back in June by Fr. Theodore and Giorgi Chkheidze. I caught a few hours of sleep in Fr. Theodore’s apartment near the airport before forcing myself to get up and go into the city in my zombie-like state. I met up with Fr. Theodore at Sameba Cathedral (27 September is the feast of the Exaltation of the Most Precious Cross on the Julian calendar) and we headed off to Fr. Theodore’s favorite restaurant. There, I met the Perdues, a farm family from Iowa that I would get to know better. I tagged along as Fr. Theodore ran several errands in preparation for his return to the USA in November before we returned to his apartment.

The next day held a bit more excitement. I was scheduled to meet my candidate host family later that day, but before I even headed out the door, Fr. Theodore received a phone call warning us that there was going to be a large-scale demonstration organized by a newly formed opposition party on the steps of Parliament. Just two days earlier, Irakli Okruashvili, ex-Defense Minister and former ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili, made a dramatic return to politics, introducing his opposition party “Ertiani Sakartvelostvis” (“For a United Georgia”) on broadcast television and at the same time accusing current President Saakashvili of corruption and even having a hand in the accidental death of the former Prime Minister (the official report is that he died of carbon monoxide poisoning). During the evening of the 27th, masked men arrested Okruashvili in his home and he was charged with multiple corruption charges, sparking the call to demonstrate the next day. There probably is some truth to Okruashvili’s accusations, but Okruashvili is also probably no more innocent—such is the state of politics in this post-Soviet Republic. Fortunately, the demonstration, while attracting thousands, was peaceful, but the demonstration marked the first real opposition to Saakashvili and the political situation here is certainly less stable as a result.

Nana, my Georgian teacher, helped me find my host family. Duna and Temo are a married couple in their 50s. Their two-bedroom apartment in the district of Saburtalo was once also the home of their now grown son, Lekso, married and currently working for the Georgian Embassy in Baku (capital of neighboring Azerbaijan). Am I happy living with my host family? Let me just say that Duna is always telling me that I am her “Lekso!” Duna is eager to feed me, and I’m all too eager to oblige. She even fondly scolds me when I leave for classes before letting my hair dry, telling me I will catch my death of cold (a belief she is even surer of since I recently came down with a cold). Temo likes to try to communicate with me in his very limited English (Duna knowing none) which he picked up as a former employee of the Sheraton (he now works for the Ministry of Culture). He’s also a rugby fan (I played rugby briefly before my ankle injury) and is a good friend of the father of the coach of the national team (the Lelos made it to the Rugby World Cup for the second time, only to lose 3 of 4 games)—he’s promised to take me to a match in a couple weeks.

Next post: Vintage and winemaking in Kakheti.

Post to come!

I had a post typed up on my laptop and saved to my flash drive, but the internet cafe I'm in doesn't have available USB ports!! I promise I'll have one if not two posts up sometime tomorrow. In the meantime, check out some recent photos on my flickr site (


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Javakheti Part 2: The summer camp at Mir a Shkhani

The small village (about 50 families) of Mir a Shkhani is an anomaly within Javakheti. First of all, the people there are ethnically Georgian, unusual in the mostly Armenian province. Second of all, they are all Muslim. The village most likely converted during one of the invasions coming from nearby Turkey (only a few kilometers away) several centuries ago.

The camp for college-aged youth (all from Tbilisi) was based in Mir a Shkhani’s two school buildings near the Mtkvari River (the river which eventually flows through Tbilisi). Organized by Metropolitan Nikoloz and funded by World Vision, a Christian organization, the camp was an island of Christianity in this Muslim village. But differences in religious belief never became an issue and the people of Mir a Shkhani welcomed us and showed us the hospitality one comes to expect from Georgians.

Now, this wasn’t your typical summer camp. There was work, hard work. And lots of it. The main objective of the camp was to restore an ancient church carved into the mountainside. It was only discovered 5 years ago—not surprising, as all that is visible from the outside is a small rectangular hole big enough for someone to crawl into—and little is known about its history. It is believed (how, I don’t know) that the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and it is for this reason that it is called Tavkvetila—literally, “head severed,” referring to how St. John the Baptist met his end.

There are two rectangular-cut holes that lead into the church. The first, at the base, leads to a vertical shaft 12 feet in height. A ladder provides the only means of gaining entrance to the church. Presumably, the entrance was designed this way in an effort to keep animals out of the church (it worked but not entirely—there was an active swallow’s nest in the church). The second hole is about 30 feet directly above the first. It is the only window into the church and provides all the light. The church is quite large, measuring about 20 ft x 40 ft x 20 ft high, a size that is even more impressive when one considers that it was carved entirely out of rock.

While certainly large enough to hold 40 or 50 worshippers, Tavkvetila is not large enough to contain the crowds that come on September 11th (the feast day of St. John the Baptist on the Julian calendar). In the past, the overflow was forced to stand outside on the uneven terrain (it is a mountainside). But now no longer. The camp participants built two large terraces out of stone on which people can stand outside the church. The larger of the two terraces measures 100 ft long and stands 7+ ft at the highest point. And they did a good job—their progress was regularly evaluated by architects from Tbilisi who praised the students’ excellent work.

Derek and I joined the camp in its second half (in all, 4 weeks). We were rather unceremoniously dropped off by Fr. Theodore who said something about picking us up the next week. Derek and I would be staying in the men’s building (there being 2 parts to the school) in one of the tiny classrooms. The room was tiny, the floors wooden and dusty, and the window had a pane missing. We would be roughing it.

That first afternoon was a bit awkward. Here we were, two Americans who didn’t know much Georgian, arriving halfway through a camp. We exchanged greetings with the 20-odd students at the camp but for the most part, we didn’t speak much with them, instead clinging to Nes and Nino, the two English-speakers. But soon enough, their curiosity of Americans together with their Georgian hospitality and my desire to practice my Georgian broke the ice and very quickly I made many good friends.

As dusk approached that first day, we were visited by 3 monks from Vardzia monastery (the cave monastery). They came bearing gifts of watermelon and fresh honey from their own bee hives. They soon joined a game of volleyball that was underway in the school yard (the volleyball net was a gift from World Vision, and it quickly became a favorite evening pastime, not just for us, but for the entire village). It was quite surreal to watch monks in their cassocks playing volleyball…

Here’s the schedule of a typical day at the camp:
6:00 am: Wake up, brush teeth from spring, drink tea, fill jugs with water from spring under the bridge. Watch the cattle being driven by the villagers into the mountains. The men taking on the large cattle and water buffalo; the women and children driving the calves
7:00-7:30: Depart for worksite 2 km away (Tavkvetila) carrying water jugs, stopping to pick apricots. Ford Mtkvari River and climb up mountainside to reach worksite
7:30-11:30: Perform backbreaking work while we’re still protected by the shade of the mountain. Listen to morning prayers being read by volunteer.
11:30-12:00: Eat delicious lunch prepared by the girls (some of the girls worked at the site, too) back at camp and carried to us by one of the guys who slept in.
12:00-2:00: Return to work; now in the sun
2:00-2:30: Head back to camp; ford river, this time not making an effort to avoid falling in (by now it’s very hot), if haven’t fallen in, pushed in by one of the guys
2:30-6:00: Relax, nap, chat with others, swim in the Mtkvari River
6:00-6:30: Have supper (usually bread, cheese, tomato and cucumber salad, potatoes, pasta, honey)
6:30-8:30 (dusk): play volleyball or soccer with locals
8:30-10:00: talk on the porch, practice Georgian
10:00-10:30: evening prayers
11:00-6:00: sleep, unless interrupted by prank

As we had arrived towards the end of the camp, most of the hard labor had already been completed. The terraces had already been built; all that was left for us to do, was to backfill the larger terrace and excavate two cells below the church (most likely used for storage). The work was still hard, often involving breaking up large rocks; by the end, my hands were quite blistered.

Derek, unfortunately, became quite ill with food poisoning (not at all surprising given that we weren’t living in the most sanitary of conditions; everyone got sick at some point and I would have my turn soon) during our second day at the camp and was subsequently whisked away to the more comfortable monastery in Baraleti to regain strength where he stayed for almost 5 days. Without Derek, I lost the only person I had been speaking in English to regularly. Sure, Nino, Nes, and a few other students could speak English, but they knew that I wanted to learn Georgian so they made a point of speaking to me in Georgian, and they only spoke to me in English when I had no clue as to what they had said. I was totally immersed in Georgian—and I loved it. The English-speakers took it upon themselves to teach me the more difficult aspects of Georgian while the others, mainly the guys, taught me phrases and short poems. The guys especially had a lot of fun with me: they would teach me a phrase that they swore was innocuous and have me repeat it to the girls, which I would naively do. Based on the girls’ reactions, I would find out that the phrase wasn’t so innocuous…

More still to come.

Lasha Dzia

Lasha Dzia
Originally uploaded by rugbyxm
Es aris chemi dzma-katsistvis, Lasha Dzia--Jigari xar!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Javakheti Part 1: Axalkalaki and the drive to Mir a Shkhani

Many apologies for such a late post about something that happened 3+ weeks ago! I returned from the Black Sea late Wednesday and have been busy getting ready for my trip home (Tuesday morning!) since.

Javakheti is a province of Georgia southwest of Tbilisi. It borders Turkey to the southwest and Armenia to the southeast, and not so coincidentally, it is the home to a significant Armenian population—in fact, they make up the majority of the population. There is much tension between the ethnic Armenians and Georgians in Javakheti and there is even a movement to break away from Georgia. Like Abkhazia, a region of Georgia which successfully broke away in the early 90s (though it is not recognized by any country in the world except Russia), the separatist feelings are supported by Russia. A large Russian military base in the province’s capital Axalkalaki until recently employed ~40,000 Armenians—one can see why the Armenians like the Russians. Now that the base is closing, who knows what will transpire.

Javakheti is also home to some of the most beautiful, untouched terrain in Georgia. It is mountainous, with some peaks above 10,000 feet, in some parts and in others it is steppe. For the most part, Javakheti is treeless, but it was not always so. Several centuries ago, the whole area was heavily forested until one of Georgia’s many invaders set fire to the forest. It burned for seven years and hasn’t grown back since. See my pictures (link in side bar) for a better idea of what Javakheti looks like.

The bishop of Javakheti is Metropolitan Nikoloz, Fr. Theodore’s friend and whom he serves liturgy with, and he is also partly responsible for bringing Derek and me to Georgia. For the past several years now, Metropolitan Nikoloz has organized youth camps in Javakheti. At first they were aimed at university students but have been expanded to include even younger children. Derek and I were to join the university-aged camp which was located in a small village called Mir a Shkhani more than an hour away from Axalkalaki.

We departed from Tbilisi for the Axalkalaki on Tuesday, July 31st, our party consisting of Fr. Theodore, myself, Derek, Loyal (the photographer), and Nino (the film-history student). The drive up was relatively uneventful—we were stopped a couple of times by herds of cattle meandering across the road, an event which Loyal photographed by precariously leaning out the window—and gave me a chance to appreciate the changing scenery. We stopped to eat near Borjomi, a town famous for its healing waters (Stalin, a Georgian and a hypochondriac, made trips there when he could), before continuing on to Axalkalaki.

We arrived after nightfall at Metropolitan Nikoloz’s to find the mid-teens’ camp watching a Finnish film in the bishop’s backyard. Once the film was over, we were briefly introduced before being given a tour of the bishop’s house. It is more a museum than a house, which is exactly what the bishop wants—he has been collecting artifacts, fossils, stuffed animals, paintings, etc… for the past couple of years and has sought advice from museum curators on how to best display his collection. It being late in addition to our being exhausted from the drive up, we didn’t stay long. Derek and I spent the night in a hotel as the Residence (a house next to the cathedral where all the kids were staying) was full.

The next day was the last day for the mid-teens and they left for Tbilisi in the early afternoon. Two of them, Keti and Nestan, stayed behind as they would be joining the university camp with Derek and me and would be traveling with us to the camp. Keti is a 15 year-old girl who has been living in Paris for the past few years and comes home to Georgia as often as she can. Nestan, or “Nes,” has lived in Tbilisi all her life and just graduated from high school. Both girls know a decent amount of English, and Nes, noticing that I was eager to learn more Georgian, was my teacher for the time she was at the camp (only 5 days).

The drive to Mir a Shkhani is a beautiful one rich with history. We first stopped at an ancient castle several centuries old. There, Loyal had a little photo-shoot. Since meeting Loyal and seeing him at work, I have gained a greater interest in photography. As I followed him around in the ruins, I learned some of the basics of photography. I also saw the lengths to which a photographer will go to get a perfect shot, which in this case meant Loyal lying on his back in cow dung to photograph the opening in the tower above.

Next stop was a stop to drink spring water near Vardzia, the ancient cave-city founded in the 12th century by Queen Tamar. At its height, over 700 people (mostly monks) lived in this city which had over 6,000 rooms. In the 13th century, a large earthquake sheered more than 2/3 of the city away from the mountain side. Today, we can see the rooms exposed by the earthquake, but before the earthquake, one would have had to look hard to see any sign of a cave complex.

Just a few miles away is the village of Mir a Shkhani where we headed next… more about my time there in part 2.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Off to the Black Sea

I apologize for not posting about my time in Javakheti. Now, I'm off to the coastal town of Kobuleti with some of my friends from the trip to Javakheti. Keep your fingers crossed for easy internet access there...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'm Back

I've just returned from Javakheti and am exhausted (had to get up at 5), so I won't give a lengthy post just yet. But I'll tell you that my time there was the best part of my trip so far.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Wrapping up, Bodbe take 2

On Monday I leave Tbilisi, where I've been since my arrival in Georgia, for the province of Javakheti. While I've greatly enjoyed living in Tbilisi, I'm looking forward to a change of pace. Instead of crowds of people, I'll be met with herds of sheep shepherded by Azeris. I'll also not have access to the internet, so this may be my last post for a while.

The end of our stay at Gudushauri ended uneventfully and it was clear that we left at the right time as there seemed to be less to do. August is the vacation month in Georgia, so by the end of July, most all of the doctors had left except for those required to attend to emergencies. Besides emergency operations, there have been few surgeries in the general surgery department for us to observe this last week. Wanting to see as many operations as possible, we observed surgeries from other departments. The most interesting case was a neurosurgery operation involving a patient who had suffered massive trauma to his head 3 years ago causing part of his skull to go missing and which didn't grow back. The operation was an attempt to "plug the hole" so to speak. After removing pieces of broken skull from the original accident, the neurosurgeon molded what looked like pink silly putty over the hole and let it dry. Once dry, the "silly putty" was white and hard as bone. Finally, the scalp was carefully stitched back together over the patching.

I'll miss Ghudushauri--all its doctors, nurses, and patients, and even the security guards. I'll miss the surprise parties where we found ourselves drinking to the health of a nurse, the half-Georgian, half-English conversations I had with the doctors about everything from Russian literature to soccer, the nights spent on duty with the medical students... the list goes on. I'll especially miss the patients that stayed for several weeks (they had serious problems), for we really brightened their days with our simple conversations and cheerful attitudes. We said good-bye and promised that we would come back one day (a real possibility...).

Friday was also the last day of our language lessons. I've really enjoyed learning Georgian and both my teachers, Inga and Nana, really pushed me hard to learn as much as I could in 4 weeks time. What we covered (i.e. Beginning Georgian) in 4 weeks is usually taught over several months. As a treat (?), Nana showed us the first lesson of the Intermediate Georgian program. It was a bit humbling, to say the least: we were introduced to a new verb system, one completely opposite from the one we had just learned, and infinitely more complicated.

Today (Saturday), our teacher Nana again took Derek and me out for a day trip with her friends. This time, we went to Bodbe monastery and springs. Derek and I had already been to the springs during our first week in Georgia, but not the monastery as we arrived too early then. Thankfully, fewer people went on this trip, so instead of 18 people crammed into the van, we had only 13. We were joined by some new faces this time, too, including a very pleasant woman by the name of Maia. Maia speaks excellent English, the reason for which we soon discovered: she has been living in London for the past 14 years. Maia is quite animated and she made the 1.5 hour marshrutka ride enjoyable with her lively songs and conversations.

Bodbe monastery is a pilgrimage site for St. Nino's tomb resides in one of the churches. I hope to upload pictures of the church soon, which will give you a better idea of what the place looks like. St. Nino's body lies beneath a marble slab (Georgians don't exhume their saints) next to the altar.

Next, we went to the springs. The last time Derek and I were there, it was early in the morning and no one was there. This time, the early afternoon, there were dozens. As we had come like everyone else to the springs to plunge ourselves into the cold water, we had to wait for over an hour before our turn. It was cold as I expected, but very refreshing, especially on such a hot day.

As with our last trip with Nana's party, we stopped at a restaurant on our way back. While waiting for the food to be served, I wandered about to take some pictures. On my way back to the table, however, I was beckoned by three men at another table. Not wishing to refuse Georgian hospitality (though I probably should have...), I joined them and was immediately handed a glass of wine. My Georgian being good enough to make out basic sentences, I answered their questions and explained to them who I was, where I was from, and what I was doing in Georgia. The first toast they made was to the good Americans, and the friendship between the two peoples. They mentioned the fact that Georgia has troops in Iraq as part of the coalition. The second toast (not 2 minutes after the first) was to the hope for good politics between Georgia and America. The third toast (again, not 2 minutes after the second) was to me, for expressing a love for Georgia and for being able to speak the language (as poorly as I did). I thought I was safe because we had drained the pitcher of wine with the third toast, but I should have known better when the ordered another one. Fortunately, Maia realized my absence and came to my rescue just before the next toast. After much sweet-talking, she pulled me away.

I finished dinner with my group, though I passed on more wine. On my way back to the Marshrutka, I was pulled aside by one of the three men I had drank with. He was very proud (and very drunk) of his battered jeep and had me take a picture of him with it and then me with it. We continued to talk and he invited me to come to his village for a supra (Georgian feast), writing his address on a scrap of paper. He said he had a 16 year old son who I would make good friends with. The marshrutka pulling away, I hastily said goodbye, promising to visit him if I ever came to his town...

We made it back to Tbilisi in record time, thanks to our speedy and skilled driver, stopping only to buy some delicious local cheese.

Friday, July 27, 2007


Just 15 miles outside of Tbilisi lies Georgia’s ancient capital, Mtskheta. We had been meaning to go there for the longest time, yet we kept putting it off because of its proximity to Tbilisi. But as we are leaving Tbilisi this coming Monday, we finally made the trip on Wednesday.

In addition to our usual crew of Fr. Theodore, Derek, and me, we were joined by Loyal and Nino. Nino is a film history student in Moscow and had returned to Tbilisi for summer vacation. She speaks very good English and is an invaluable source of knowledge of Georgian history. Loyal is a photography grad student from Missouri State University who met Fr. Theodore at a photo exhibition a couple of years ago, and they have been good friends ever since. Almost on a whim, Fr. Theodore a few weeks ago invited Loyal, who’s never been to Georgia, to come to Georgia for two weeks. The purpose of his visit is to help Fr. Theodore set up his dark room and digital light room and also, of course, to photograph Georgia.

The first day I met Loyal he was still very jetlagged (he had quite a rough time getting here; you can read more about it on his blog) and kept dozing off during our brief meeting. But since that first meeting, Loyal has proved himself to be quite active and alive, especially when a camera is in his hands. I’ve never spent time with a photographer before, and I guess what struck me the most was just the sheer number of photographs he takes.

Our first destination was Jvari Monastery (and Church) set upon a hill overlooking the town of Mtskheta. Jvari means “cross” in Georgian, and it is so named because St. Nino, the Enlightener of Georgia, is believed to have planted a cross there in the 4th century. The current structure was erected in the 6th century and encloses the foundation of the original cross planted by St. Nino. For a better description of what the church looks like both inside and out, see my photos. Fr. Theodore showed us a monk’s cell carved into the hillside beneath the church. Carefully, lest we fall off the hillside, we crawled into the dark, cool chamber which measured no more than 10 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet high.

Next, we visited Sveti-Tskhoveli (Church of the life-giving pillar) Cathedral in Mtskheta. The current structure was completed in the early 11th century, but the history of the site dates back to the 1st century. A Georgian Jew from Mtskheta named Elias was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and was converted. He bought Jesus’ robe from a Roman soldier and brought it back to Mtskheta. When his sister Sidonia touched the robe, she instantly died, but the robe could not be removed from her grasp so she was buried with it. From her grave grew a magnificent Lebanese Cedar. In the 4th century, this cedar was chopped down to construct the first Christian church in Georgia. Seven pillars were fashioned from the tree, but the seventh pillar magically rose into the air and it was only by St. Nino’s incessant praying that it was brought back to the ground. Since then, this pillar, its site still marked within the cathedral, has been known to work miracles—thus the name “Church of the Life-Giving Pillar.”

Our third stop was at yet another ancient church: Samtavro monastery. Like Sveti-Tskhoveli, Samtavro holds great importance in the Georgian Church. It was here that St. Nino, by praying fervently underneath a bush that flourishes today, converted the pagan King and Queen of Georgia, and in doing so, all of Georgia. A cemetery for monastics forms part of the monastery complex. Most of the graves are only marked by a slab of stone, but one stands out. It is tended to constantly by the nuns who till the black, fertile soil above the grave so often that it’s almost like sand. The grave is that of a simple priest who died in the mid-90s. Fr. Theodore describes him as a “fool for Christ,” who once burned the ominous portrait of Lenin in Tbilisi’s main square, laughing the whole time. Many cases of miraculous healings have been attributed to him since his death, and visitors to his grave can ask to be anointed by oil from the lamp that burns constantly over his grave.

We finished the day with a dinner at a restaurant by the Mtkvari river. In addition to our typical Georgian meal, we were treated with barbecued sturgeon and sturgeon caviar. A delicacy, to the least, as it’s illegal to fish sturgeon out of the Caspian Sea, where our fish most likely came from…

Next post coming soon about wrapping up in Tbilisi.