Winters are tough in Georgia, February sucked, and March isn’t any better.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m having a difficult time getting through the winter. For nearly the entire month of February the temperature rarely (if ever) got above freezing, so any snow that fell would remain on the ground, ice over and freeze solid, except for the small amounts that are removed from road traffic and normal evaporation on sunny days.
So how does this translate to normal daily life in a Georgian village? No running water for a month. Diana (my host mother) has made the effort to take me into Gori for the past few weeks (once a week) so that I can take a shower at a bath house. It’s not a very agreeable solution really, but it’s better than nothing. It can take 3 or more hours to accomplish this trip, and the facilities are minimal. The stalls are private at least, but they’re very small, and the entire floor becomes wet during the shower, so it’s not really possible to dry off my feet when I’m done. The stall is heated only by the hot water which flows plentifully. In fact, it’s really quite enjoyable when you’re standing under the water because there’s an enormous amount of water pressure and it’s quite hot if I turn off all the cold water (and I do). I think it costs 5 lari for a shower (about $2.00), but I’m not sure because the Gogidze’s insist on paying for the visit.
I honestly believe their children have not had a shower for a month, but they do manage to wash their hair (I’ll explain below). And I also believe the Gogidze’s would not make a trip to the Gori bath house if they didn’t have a foreign guest. I’ve come to believe that typical American hygiene seems more like an unnecessary inconvenience to villagers in Georgia. These people are tough!
During the week, it is possible to heat water on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I can ask to use some hot water to shave and Diana has volunteered a few times to pour water over my head so that I can wash my hair during the week. I believe she’s helped me 5 or 6 times to wash my hair and shave. She also helps her children wash up in the same manner. It’s really the only solution.
About 4 weeks ago I developed a really large acne cist on my forehead, probably because of the ongoing stress of this ordeal, and lack of daily washing. I was “blessed” with terrible skin, so it’s really no big surprise, but this sucker became especially large and painful after 2 or 3 days of watching it grow. Naturally, my host mother noticed it and became very concerned. She wanted me to go to the doctor, and I agreed. I was having some bad headaches, and thought maybe they could drain it quickly, just as I’ve had it done in America a few times in the past.
We went to the hospital, which is the normal starting point for my medical needs. This hospital was definitely built during soviet times and is falling apart. There are electrical wires nailed up on the walls and strung down the hallways, the floors are sometimes covered with some kind of imitation hardwood flooring that is more like paper, and is curling up on the edges and has been completely peeled off in large areas revealing rotted hardwood or crumbling concrete underneath. There is no central heating in this hospital. Doctors and nurses remain in private rooms and stay close to their electrical space heaters.
We spoke with the initial contact nurse and she checked my insurance card and passport, and gave us a slip of paper to take to a much more modern hospital on the other side of town for my appointment with a doctor. We took a taxi to the new hospital and it was a very nice facility with central heating and clean, white tile flooring. In fact, there was one woman who constantly cleaned this floor in the entryway. I don’t believe she stopped cleaning the floor for a minute, and it remained spotless.
Diana seemed to know that we needed to go down a hallway and into a certain room where a few doctors and nurses were sitting. There were plenty of patients in the hallway, so I’m still not sure how we were able to circumvent the queue and get attention immediately. The doctor took a look at my forehead, but didn’t speak any English. He was a young man, about mid-thirties, with balding head and handsome face. I was told that he was Diana’s cousin (Georgians OFTEN exaggerate their relationship status), so I guess this is how we were able to see him so quickly. He took out his cell phone and called another doctor who spoke some English. The English-speaking doctor arrived in about 2 minutes, also in his mid-thirties. He asked if I would be interested in a “short procedure” that would take a few minutes with “no pain”. This sounded just like the kind of procedure I’ve had in the states, so I agreed.
I was immediately ushered into the next room and asked to lie down on a surgical table. The entire room and its equipment looked very modern. I tried to relax. I’m not good with pain, and I hate going to the hospital for anything. The doctor could see that I was nervous and asked me where I was from. I said, “California”, to which he replied in Georgian “it’s good”. The procedure was quite painful really, because he used a long needle to inject something (it certainly wasn’t Novocain or anything similar because I felt everything afterwards), and then asked his assistant for a knife (I happen to be quite aware of the Georgian word for “knife”). This is when I knew it was going to be a lot different than what I was accustomed to at a dermatologist’s office in America. Clearly, this doctor was a surgeon, not a dermatologist, but honestly, I was only thinking about the sharp thing hovering over my head. After the longest 2 or 3 minutes of my life, the doctor put in a few stitches and bandaged my forehead. He asked me to come back the next day at 10 o’clock so he could remove the stitches.
The stitches are out now, and it’s been about 3 weeks since the “short procedure”. I’m not happy about the result because he didn’t really drain the thing, and there’s a nice little scar, but I’m not worried about it anymore. I have much worse scars on my face as it is already. I can call it my Georgian tattoo.
I’ve also been fighting a cold, cough (constant) and temperature (off and on) for about 3 weeks, and falling asleep has been difficult. My room is very cold, so I usually spend my time completely under the covers until the middle of the night. The cold air is really rough on my throat, so it’s not helping matters. Diana has since offered that I sleep on the fold out couch in the common room (with a heater), and this is a very welcome change. I can turn off the heater before I go to sleep, and the room remains much warmer than my bedroom.
I went to a party with my oldest host sister, Teona (my forehead bandaged, wearing a hat because I haven’t had a shower or washed my hair for 4 days). The party-goers are all Teona’s classmates. It was the second night in a row for them, which is very common in Georgia. Many parties can last long into the night, and resume the following afternoon or evening. I can safely assume everyone in the room is 17 or 18 years old. Maybe a few of them were younger, I don’t know. Teona invited me to the first party, and I declined because there was a birthday party for another adult family friend!
The second night I was invited again and Teona seemed genuinely eager for me to go this time. It became clear that some of the kids wanted me to take pictures, and I was happy to do it. So I packed my gear and walked two blocks to Sopo’s home (I think it’s safe to say that “Sopo” can be translated to “Sophia” in English). Sopo is 17, and is quite possibly the most beautiful girl in the village. I’ve already shared a few pictures of Sopo on Facebook, taken during one of the school excursions. Before we got to her house, Teona called her on her cell to say that we were on our way, and Sopo actually walked out to meet us halfway (on a very chilly evening). She doesn’t speak any English, and my Georgian (although getting better every day) is still sadly lacking in conversational skills. She beamed her smile at me and we exchanged Georgian pleasantries. After that, we had nothing but smiles to offer one another.
We walked up her home’s crumbling staircase and entered the upper floor where there was already a familiar festive table set for 20 people, and several of the teenagers were already huddled around the only space heater in the room…a very cold room. After about 10 minutes Levani shows up, who I can safely describe as the alpha dog of their social circle. I have good reason to believe that Levani and Teona are a couple, which in Georgian villages can be a very tricky affair, since this status seems to automatically imply that marriage is soon to follow. I have never seen them exchange public displays of affection (this is considered shameful), but they will occasionally touch or look at each other in a way that can only mean they have spent a lot of time talking in private.
Levani stands at the head of the table and speaks with boldness and authority that everyone should take a seat so that the celebration can begin. All of the boys sit at one end of the table, and all of the girls at another, although it’s a bit lopsided as there are 10 girls and 5 boys. I am the only adult, and I am asked to change my seat so that I am sitting between Levani and Teona. None of this seems unusual to me. I just thought it was distinctively Georgian (specifically Georgian village life—more on that later) to witness a group of young people at a suprah completely separated by gender because it was a traditional sit-down eating and drinking occasion. Later in the evening there was no separation between genders although I never saw any male-female combination share a toast of wine with locking arms (see photos), a very traditional way to show love and friendship at a suprah.
After everyone was finishing with the food I decided to get out my camera and start taking pictures. At this point the room seemed to erupt with enthusiasm, and everyone started dancing, or posing in groups, barking orders at me to take their picture. Some of the boys were especially rude about it, but it didn’t really bother me because honestly I didn’t understand any of their demands in Georgian language, and it just made me laugh, which seemed to irritate some of them a little bit. On the whole it was a very positive experience, and everyone was having a great time, including myself.
So now it’s March 13, and there’s a lot of snow on the ground. I like snow…in December. When March comes, I’m ready for spring, but it seems clear that I’ll have to wait for April. Pipes are still frozen, and we’re all pretty sick of winter. And I’ve been suffering another relapse of cold and fever this past weekend, and have missed a few days of school.
I’m still enjoying my job as a teacher, and I believe I could do this kind of work for a living, but the money here just doesn’t pay the bills, and that’s not much! The photography business is also flopping, mainly because I can’t speak the language, and I don’t have anyone around me to help me with this problem. I still believe there are opportunities, but I can’t speak for myself. I’ve been asking for a Kartuli teacher since October, and they’re all busy. Everyone says I need to be living in Tbilisi if I want to be a photographer, and this seems to be inescapable. Relocation is possible, so it’s something I’m considering for next semester. On the other hand, spring weather brings a lot of weddings, and I’m hopeful that I can get some work. Learning the language is clearly the biggest obstacle to any kind of business success, and even though I’m learning slowly, there is progress, and summer holidays will open up schedules for all the private teachers.
The best news is that I’m not spending any money except for a few taxi rides, bus fares, and a few afternoons spent inside one of two different restaurants in Gori with free Wi-Fi. My birthday will be celebrated Georgian style, at a local restaurant with 16 guests, live music and a sparkler cake. I’ve promised myself not to take a lot of pictures on my birthday, but there will be plenty of video, I’m sure, so stay tuned.