I’m officially a Peace Corps Volunteer

So, It’s official. After 11 long weeks of training, I am officially a Peace Corps volunteer. The swearing in ceremony was last Friday. A very official event with embassy staff and Georgian government officials. But the highlight by far was an incredible all female traditional Georgian music group based at Tbilisi State University called Gordela. Here’s a video from a performance they did at a Ted Talk a while back. They are worth checking out. The other highlight was the actual oath I had to take. I’m not very patriotic. But it was kind of cool to swear to defend the Constitution of the United States. I’m pretty sure that means that I need to lead some sort of coup d’etat to wrest our government back from the corporations and the military industrial complex. But I guess that will have to wait until I’m done serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. 😉

So, I’ve been in my new site since last Friday evening. You may remember that when last I wrote, I had no clue where I would be living. Well, my faith in the Peace Corps was well placed. At the swearing in ceremony, I met two out of three members of my new host family, my host mom Cici (pronounced Tsitsi) and my host brother Giorgi (of course!). Giorgi is a student in Tbilisi and so is only home for the summer. Cici is a professor of medicine at Kutaisi State University. Her husband Dato is a painter and spends the majority of his time in his studio which is I don’t know where. We live in an apartment very close to the city center. It is a 15 minute walk to work which I love. My room is very nice with plenty of room to do yoga (should I finally motivate myself to get up in the morning and do that!). I’m truly in the posh corps. My family has a washer, wifi, a car, very modern bathroom, and AIR CONDITIONING! The air conditioning is in the main room. So, because I keep my bedroom door closed most of the time, I don’t benefit from it much. But when it gets truly hot (which luckily it hasn’t been this week) I can leave my door open and reap the benefits. So, for all of you who thought I’d be roughing it for the next two years, I hope you aren’t too disappointed.

That’s not to say that this week hasn’t had challenges. For the first time in Georgia, I am on my own. I do have a site mate Ann who lives about a 30 minute walk from me. We hung out on Saturday and then had lunch on Tuesday with some other volunteers who came into the city. But for the most part, I’m on my own here. And my language skills are not so great. In fact, now that I don’t have class everyday, I feel like I’ve regressed, mostly because I’m content to just remain quiet rather than force someone to wait for me to spit out whatever basic Georgian I can manage. If I’m going to improve (which I must), I have to start using it. I also realized that Eka (my former host mom) and I had developed a pretty good way of communicating with each other using a combination of Georgian, English, German, and body language. It had become so natural that I didn’t realize how much of a crutch it was. We tried to speak on the phone earlier this week and it was kind of sad.

So that brings me to work. I work in a fairly large organization. I’ll get into the details of what we do at some later date. For now though, I’m doing a lot of looking through old (English) grant applications, old files, etc to try to get a sense of what is going on here and where they could use my help. I have my first meeting with my Executive Director at 7:00 pm tonight. She is actually working for the Ministry of Refugees now and so is only available in the evenings and on weekends. I have a very long list of questions for her and hope to get some direction on what they hope I can offer them. There are about 12 people in our office. Only four of them speak any English and there is a range of skill among those who do. So, I spend a good deal of my time, sitting here, being somewhat invisible. I’ve always found the first week on any job to be incredibly awkward. Add the inability to even participate in customary niceties and small talk and shit gets really awkward. But I’m getting more accustomed to it as the week wears on. And eventually, as my language skills improve, I’ll stop being invisible. 

I’ve struggled this week with a few other things as well. Being on my own here and actually having free time for the first time since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot more time to think about what/who I’m missing at home. I’ve been a little overwhelmed by it. I keep trying to remind myself that two years really does go by quickly. But sometimes two years feels like an eternity, particularly when there is someone at home with whom you’d like to be spending your time. And last, I had an experience the other night that really showed me how helpless I am here. Around midnight I heard a puppy crying outside of my window. I won’t go into the details of what was wrong, but I will say he was suffering. And no one helped. I wanted to help, I tried to do the only thing I knew to do to help, but there wasn’t anything I could do (at least that I was capable of). And that’s just one of the realities of living here. In the states, I would have known who to call and what to do. Here there is no one to call. And no one cares. In a country where many people are hungry (particularly in the winter), the fate of animals doesn’t really rank high on the list of priorities. And that’s very difficult for me. It has stayed with me all week. And I’m not sure when it will go away. It’s difficult to suddenly be helpless when you are accustomed to being capable. 

But this is only my first week at site. It will get better. And really, in concrete terms, my situation here is pretty good. I just have to get into a better mental state.

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Let’s play catch-up!

So my last real post was me preparing to find out what I will be doing and where I will be spending the next two years and then heading off to visit the site for a few days. I think I may have promised to share the news as soon as I found out. How long ago was that?

Well, I was full of good intentions. Life has certainly gotten away from me over the past few weeks. We had our site announcements, a four day visit to our sites, followed by language classes, putting on a community training series, and our first trip to Tbilisi. I know there are many other things in there but it is all a blur now. PST (pre-service training) is no joke. And about midway through I hit a wall. For the past three weeks, I feel like I’ve made little progress with my language skills because my brain is just too tired to absorb anymore. In those same three weeks, I’ve had the first of what I’m sure will be many low moments as well as my first bouts with illness. But I’ve also managed to have a lot of fun. Such is PST and, from what I hear, Peace Corps service overall. So, on to the update.

Anyone who has been following is aware that I was really hoping for an assignment in a city. I had concerns about living under the microscope that a smaller community inevitably is here. There is not even the tiniest part of me that wants to experience the “celebrity” life that Peace Corps service can often be. So, on June 10th, I finally found out that I will be spending the next two years in Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia. Score! There are, of course, downsides to being in a larger city (more expensive, harder to integrate into the community, not the “traditional” PC experience) but, in my opinion, the pluses outweigh the minuses. Have I mentioned there is a french restaurant in Kutaisi?! Admittedly, I can’t really afford it on my PC stipend, but I can scrape and scrounge when I have a serious craving.

I’ll be working with a great organization, KEDEC, that does a number of different things including working with youth civic clubs in local schools, running day centers for disabled youth, and providing vocational and employability trainings for the community. They also have a new social enterprise (handmade cards made by disabled and IDP [internally displaced peoples] employees). There was another volunteer at my organization who just left, but not before showing me around the organization and the city (thank you, Tami!). Replacing another volunteer has its benefits, but Tami was pretty fabulous. So I have some big shoes to fill and obviously they have some high expectations. I hope I can deliver. But I am already really excited about some ideas for how I can help. 

On my visit, I also stayed with a host family who was intended to be my host family for, at the least, the next three months, and potentially the next two years. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is going to work out. They are wonderful people but there were a few things that I knew I couldn’t live with for the next two years. And I’d like to go into a host family situation with the intention of staying the full two years. As much as I’d love my independence (and my own kitchen), I’m afraid I can’t afford it in Kutaisi on my stipend. So, my host family situation is currently undetermined even though I head to Kutaisi in eight days. But the Peace Corps has taken very good care of me over the past three months. So I have faith that they will work this out.

So, now we’re in the waning days of PST. Today we took our final technical test and tomorrow we celebrate July 4th with a picnic for our PST host families. I’m looking forward to a hamburger with a little TOO much eagerness. This past weekend a bunch of us had a dinner party at my host family’s house where we made mexican food with some items a few of us had from care packages (thank you, Rachel!). Despite all of the delicious fresh food, somehow the Taco Bell Chipotle sauce seemed to generate the most excitement. My host mother LOVED it and proceeded to eat it on everything for the next few days. I love it when I can share new food with her. Just sorry that she seems to respond best to our uber-processed foods! She is also a big fan of peanut butter though. And she had the all natural, organic kind. So, I guess that’s good. The original dinner plan was for three of us to get together to cook for our host mothers. But word got out that there was some mexican food being cooked and before you know it we had TEN trainees filling my kitchen! My host mom Eka is truly the absolute best for welcoming everyone into our house and kitchen! See the photos below!

Which leads me to my final thought. Next Friday, July 12, we’ll all be swearing in as Peace Corps volunteers and heading to our permanent sites. I’m excited about this because, after all, this is why I came here. However, I am more than a little ambivalent about this move. I’ve grown pretty comfortable here in my host family and being a student again (more or less). July 12th represents radical change in which all of the support that I’ve grown accustomed to in Georgia will be gone. No more class everyday with my friends who are going through the same things as me. No more dinner and serial watching with Eka. Everything will be new. Again. When I think about how many times I’ve done this “everything new” thing over the past few years, it makes me very tired. But this is it, for the next two years. However, this is also the most radical “everything new” I’ve done in my entire life. I’ve been studying Georgian for almost three months. But don’t let me fool you. The only people who seem to understand me when I speak are Eka and my language teachers. And my vocabulary is still extremely limited. But I guess the real immersion is about to begin. Now’s the time to see how much of a BAMF I really am. I’d say “bring it”, but that might be a little too much bluster at the moment. 

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khashuris dzaglebi

So, it’s no secret I’m a dog lover. And one of the hardest things I did before coming here was deliver my boy Chester to Nancy, my ex-mother-in-law. I couldn’t hope for a better foster mom for him, but I miss him terribly. So, imagine how awful it was to be in Georgia for almost two months before I was “officially” allowed to touch a dog. There are dogs everywhere here. It isn’t quite as insane as Santiago, Chile, but you do see them on the streets everywhere. It is hard to tell if they have homes or not. But even when they have homes, they aren’t really taken care of. You can’t even buy dog food in Khashuri. But these dogs have street smarts. They walk down busy streets and know when to get out of the way. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for my pup who is brighter than the average pup. Some of them are friendly but they will never approach you. If you approach them, they will allow you to pet them with a fair amount of leeriness which leads you to wonder what they’ve experienced in their lives.

At any rate, since I couldn’t pet them, I decided to start photographing them. The project has been idle for a while as I grew tired of carrying around my camera all the time. But since I’m missing my boy an awful lot today, I thought I’d finally post the photos I had. Enjoy.

I do plan to update everyone on the MANY other happenings in my life as well. But this was quick and easy. And sometimes it is better just to get something done.
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Saw this guy again the other day outside a cafe. The owner freaked when I petted him. But he was by far the cleanest dog I've touched in Georgia. And I've petted a lot of them.

Saw this guy again the other day outside a cafe. The owner freaked when I petted him. But he was by far the cleanest dog I’ve touched in Georgia. And I’ve petted a lot of them.

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A shar-pei! This was the first leashed dog I saw in Georgia. I've only seen a few others since.

A shar-pei! Seeing him almost made me cry. This was the first leashed dog I saw in Georgia. I’ve only seen a few others since.

Unfortunately he had an ear infection. But the fact the owner seemed concerned was a positive sign.

Unfortunately he had an ear infection. But the fact the owner seemed concerned was a positive sign.

People here seem to love puppies. I haven't seen much evidence that the interest lasts much after puppyhood though.

People here seem to love puppies. I haven’t seen much evidence that the interest lasts much after puppyhood though.

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