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.