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 (