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.

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