My Second Thanksgiving in Georgia

This week is Thanksgiving week. As Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, I thought I’d write a post about the many things I’m thankful for. Living in Georgia isn’t always easy, so I think it is important to sometimes reflect on the things that I appreciate in my life. So, here they are in no particular order:

  • The opportunity to break away from my ordinary life and plunge myself into a world in which I often feel uncomfortable and even irritated at times. But those are the spaces where we grow. And I’m lucky to have this opportunity.
  • The kindness and generosity of my neighbors and colleagues who take care of me, check up on me, and make my days a little brighter.
  • My site mate Ann who also checks up on me, takes care of me, and makes sure I don’t retreat too far into solitude. And is just a great friend. My experience here would be completely different, and diminished without her. Thanks to her extroverted ways, I have friends here. I imagine that without her, my life in Kutaisi would resemble that of a hermit. But maybe I would have learned that coveted skill of being able to stare at the wall for hours. Alas, we’ll never know.
  • Having my own apartment that allows me to have solitude and peace when I need it. And I need it often.
  • John. He never fails to make me smile (or laugh). His weirdness ensures I will never be bored and life will never be ordinary. Can’t wait for more adventures with him.
  • The opportunity to travel. I love adventures and I’ve had many this year. In Georgia: Vardzia, Kazbegi, and Tusheti; outside of Georgia: Yerevan, Wales, London, and Warsaw. Here’s to a lot more travel in the coming year.
  • My Peace Corps family. I’ve built some great friendships with some really amazing people here. In seven months we’ll all be going on to new things. That will be a bittersweet time. But I can’t wait to see what they do in the world. And I’m already looking forward to the reunions. But in the meantime, I’m also thankful to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving with them, not once, but three times! Last week, we celebrated with all of the Peace Corps volunteers, staff, and even the American Ambassador at our annual All Volunteer conference. On Thursday, Ann and I will celebrate with some of our friends in Kutaisi. And on Saturday, I will celebrate with a few of my volunteer friends in Kobuleti (the beach).
  • My family and friends back home. Through skype, facebook and care packages, they help me feel connected to home and I can’t wait to see them all within the next year. Special shout out to my friend Jack who took my plea for help with accountability super seriously earlier this year and has checked in with me every single Thursday since. That is dedication, my friend! Also, a special shout out to my family and friends who helped support my organization’s project to renovate our daycare center for children with disabilities this year!
  • A certain genius named Matt at the Cardiff Apple Store who singlehandedly made my vacation, helped keep me in the Peace Corps, and made me a lifelong mac customer by giving me a brand new laptop for FREE!
  • To being almost done. I won’t deny that I officially began the countdown about two months ago. I’ve got a lot to do between now and then. A lot of work I will be proud of. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m also ready to leave. And the next bullet partially explains why.
  • Being an American woman. I know that the United States is far from perfect on many fronts including gender equality. However, I can’t help but be grateful that I was born in a country that allows women to reject oppressive social norms without too many consequences. Truly thankful that no one in the States ever utters the phrase, “It’s our tradition” to justify oppression.
  • The opportunity to work on GLOW to help young girls in Georgia become leaders, learn about gender issues, and make change in Georgia.
  • New beginnings. For me, joining the Peace Corps wasn’t just about doing something I’d dreamt about since college. It was also about setting my life on a new course. And having some adventures along the way. One never knows what to expect from their Peace Corps experience. But I can say with confidence that I have gotten out of it most of what I had hoped to gain. I have new work experience that should serve me well in my job search when I get home. I’ve got a better understanding of what it is that I might want to do. I’ve had some great adventures. And most of all, I’ve been happy for the first time in quite a while. The lows may be a bit lower here, but the highs are definitely higher. I’ve had a lot of fun. And I’ve learned a lot about myself. Looking forward to the next chapter.

Jet lag

I made a commitment to myself to not miss a single month blogging. And for the first time, in October, I missed a month. I just haven’t had much I’ve wanted to say. And I did some traveling too. I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately and not feeling particularly keen on sharing my experiences. My thoughts and feelings about being here have reached the point of boring me. I’ve been feeling ready to go home.

You would think a little time away would have helped with that. But it did exactly the opposite. It just fed my longing. You have no idea how much I’ve come to appreciate order and courtesy. The British people made me want to cry with joy with their reserved warmth, self-deprecating humor, and affinity for queues. I felt as if I were in some sort of dream in which everything made sense. Let’s call this fantasy land the West. Visiting Warsaw was like being gently roused from the dream only to drift back into it with the scene changed only slightly. But then I awoke boarding a plane to Georgia of all places where orderly queues are for suckers and airplane etiquette is for pansies. And the level of relaxation and peace I had reached over the previous ten days disappeared in a matter of minutes before I even stepped foot back in the country of Georgia. As we landed, the Georgian passengers cheered, they were so happy to be back in their beloved Georgia, and I wanted to cry. It took quite a few days for that feeling to dissipate. But I’ve finally returned to my former state of: I’m not crazy about Georgian culture in general, but I care about a lot of people and things here. And for the next 7.5 months, I’m going to do what I can in Georgia. So, you can see now why I’ve not been writing. Nobody wants to read that!

Here are a few of the things that have helped me get through the past rather rough week. 1. The old man who lives off of the courtyard at my office. Everytime he sees me, he lights up with a huge smile and proclaims “Amerika!” and calls me over to him where he takes my hand in both of his and slips a hard candy into it. And sometimes he goes on to ask when my boyfriend is coming to visit from Amerika and can’t understand why he isn’t coming. 2. The 14 year old girl, Ana, in my conversation class who is bright, enthusiastic, and speaks English well. She is applying for our winter GLOW camp. She wants to study international relations and visit the US someday. My goal in the time I have left is to get her on track to be a great FLEX candidate in a few years so she can achieve that goal. FLEX is an exchange program that some of the best and brightest students of Georgia participate in. And they come back and do great things in their communities. Most of our GLOW counselors are FLEX alumni.

Some other things you might want to hear about: GLOW work goes on. We are working on plans for the January camp and an April GLOW Ambassadors conference. We are also working on a new website and hopefully a new logo. And a number of other things. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m helping my organization with a fundraising campaign that will launch in December. At that point, we’ll need to get 40 people to give $10 or more to the campaign. When the time comes, I hope you’ll consider being one of our 40. We also need to raise a total of $5000 in the month of December. That is the harder part of the goal. Hopefully we can achieve it!

Also, PCVs celebrated Halloween in style this past weekend in my city, Kutaisi. Our second annual Halloween gathering in Kutaisi thanks to my sitemate Ann. It was exactly what I needed to get me out of my post trip funk. In two weeks we’ll all be gathering again for the annual All Volunteer Conference where the tradition is to celebrate Thanksgiving as a Peace Corps family. I am once again on the cooking committee which is in charge of making Thanksgiving dinner for 120 people this year. It is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. And the following week, actually on Thanksgiving, some of us will be gathering for a smaller Thanksgiving celebration. REALLY looking forward to this because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. What’s better than an entire day dedicated to nothing other than food (and, in the States, football)?

Tusheti and the next 9 months

First, let me share that a few weeks ago I went on the trip I’ve been wanting to take since before I arrived in Georgia. I visited Tusheti. Tusheti is an utterly beautiful region of Georgia. I’ve been to some impressive places in Georgia and Tusheti beats them all. I’m not a poet. So, I’m not going to try to do it justice with words. I’ve included some pictures from my trip here and also here’s a pretty cool video I found on youtube. We were there for three nights. I didn’t want to leave. I hope I get to go back. That is all.

Except. I think I should make a pitch here for visiting Georgia. I know my blog may not always reflect the beauty of Georgia. What, with my focus on frustrations with the culture, social issues, and various other pet peeves. However, Georgia is physically probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Truly, I think you could spend a month in this tiny country, no bigger than North Carolina, and never tire of exploring its stunning landscapes and ancient ruins. So, should you ever find yourself with the opportunity to visit Georgia, I hope that you will. First, because you will fall in love. And second, because I really think the future economic success of Georgia lies largely in tourism. And they are starting to realize that. But right now, everything is still super cheap by American standards.

So, that said… Maybe it’s the arrival of fall and its connection to new beginnings (spring has nothing on a lifetime of back to school anticipation). But I’ve been feeling super ready to get back to “real life” lately. I’m excited and hopeful for whatever direction my career (used very loosely here) takes. But mostly, I just want to be a grown up again with the autonomy and choices that come from earning a decent living. I miss having a proper kitchen. I miss cooking fancy. I miss good wine (note: there is good wine here but I can’t afford it). I miss having a variety of vegetables, cheeses, and meats available. I miss the farmer’s market (somehow the bazaar doesn’t really compare because there just isn’t the same level of choice here). I miss starting my Saturday morning walking Chester and listening to NPR. I miss breakfast sandwiches. I miss Wegmans. One might credibly make the assertion that I, perhaps, miss Rochester. But I know that can’t be true! Ultimately, I guess, I miss the good life. And food. I miss food. I always miss food.

But in only nine months, I’ll be leaving Georgia and will get to have all of that again. As I am beginning to see the horizon off in the distance, it is still way too soon to actually do anything in preparation for it. Sadly, I’m not one of those volunteers headed off to a graduate program after Georgia. Thus, I will bide my time until a job search begins to make sense. Which honestly will probably be May since I don’t anticipate being ready to start work until September. So, in the meantime, I’m doing my best to focus on the here and now. And there is PLENTY to focus on. You remember GLOW, that camp we just finished in August? Well, we get to do another one in January! Our donor liked the project so much, they decided to give us more money to repeat it in the winter. In addition to that, we are working on a number of other organizational development projects for GLOW including rebranding, launching a new website, and a number of new programs including an internship program, a small grants program, and expanding the Taking GLOW Home program. Plus, developing all of the organizational structural materials like a charter and, this spring, our very first annual report! So, GLOW is very busy.

And now I’m also working on some new projects with my director too. One is a fundraising project that will open up a lot of doors for our organization to do fundraising in the future for our daycare centers. Fundraising that will rely less on having a Peace Corps volunteer which is great for them as they won’t always have one. Another thing I’m working on with my director is moving this social enterprise project forward. After inching along for many months, it seems as if we are going to start moving at a faster pace. I’m sure there will still be much to do when I leave. But thankfully I’ve now got another PCV partner to help keep things moving when I leave. Which makes me happy. And I’m also working on another little project in which I’m trying to help a few local small businesses develop marketing plans to build and expand their businesses. So, I’m busy. And I’m doing some projects that will hopefully help me find an interesting job when I land back in the States. And I’m learning a lot about what kind of work I find satisfying. I’m looking forward to when I can put that knowledge to work in a job search.

Oh, and I’m also enjoying the next few weeks in Kutaisi without leaving which hasn’t happened in months. I’m looking forward to it. As it has been cold and rainy here for the past week, I don’t want to go anywhere. The next time I venture out of Kutaisi will be to head off on my trip to Wales. I can’t wait for that! I hope to get to enjoy a little of all of the things I mentioned missing above while I’m there. On a shoestring budget, of course.

GLOW!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you follow my blog regularly, you’ve heard me talking about GLOW (GIrls Leading Our World). GLOW started as a Peace Corps volunteer initiative in Romania in 1991. Since then it has spread to more than 60 peace corps countries and has been in Georgia since 2003 (I think). With the exception of 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated, there has been a GLOW camp every summer since. This year, I was privileged to be a part of the planning and execution of this camp as a GLOW committee member.

Beginning August 2 and winding up on August 20, we held two training of trainers and two camps with a total of 13 Georgian counselors, 97 girls ages 14-17, and 13 Peace Corps Volunteers. It was an incredibly long two and half weeks with very late nights and early mornings. By the end, I was a bit of a zombie. But it was so worth it! The girls learned about leadership skills, reproductive health, volunteerism, and gender equality. It was really amazing to see the excitement and energy of these girls upon arrival transformed into friendships, thoughtful discussions, and action plans by the end. 

Anyone who has followed my blog knows that dealing with gender issues is one of my biggest challenges here in Georgia. So, in my opinion, working with girls to help them realize their potential is truly the best use of my time here.  One example of the need for such empowerment came while we were in the midst of camp one. We heard through the grapevine that one of the girls who was scheduled to come to camp two (and also lives in the community of two of our PCVs) ran off and got married. She had just turned 16. She married a 25 year old. Undoubtedly, the sudden marriage was driven by the desire for physical intimacy. What this likely now means for this 16 year old girl is that she will be pregnant within the next 6 months and won’t finish high school, much less attend college. She will probably be in a marriage with a striking imbalance in power and no means of righting that imbalance which could mean a life of unhappiness and abuse. We couldn’t help but wish we had invited her to the first camp instead of the second. Needless to say, she didn’t attend camp two either, although we would have been happy to have her.

All of this to say that the need to reach these girls at a young age is incredibly important. And GLOW is one of the only programs in Georgia that I know of that is doing this. One of the best parts of GLOW are our counselors. Because the camp is planned by Peace Corps volunteers but conducted in Georgian, we need to have counselors who can communicate fluently in both languages. Many of our counselors are therefore FLEX students meaning they have spent a year in high school studying in the United States. In addition to this, they study law, medicine, social work, etc. and all have an incredible commitment to improving their country which is evident by the work they do through various NGOs and community projects. They are an amazing group of young women. And they are the perfect role models for our GLOW girls. They model what focused, smart, driven women can accomplish in Georgia. It’s been a real honor getting to work with them and getting to know them over the past few weeks.

Of course, wrangling that many people to various sessions and activities for two and a half weeks doesn’t go off without a hitch. There may have been a 2-hour period during a hike in which a number of our girls and leaders were “separated” from the rest of us. And there were definitely times where tensions ran high amongst those doing the organizing. And we certainly had our share of unforeseeable issues. But in true Peace Corps style, we demonstrated our flexibility and adaptability and rolled with it. And I think we learned a lot along the way as well. I know I did.

So, now the time has come to focus on the part of GLOW that excites me the most – making sure that GLOW is sustainable long after we leave. To that end, in January, we made what had been GLOW camp into its very own NGO, GLOW Georgia. We have an incredible board made up of our founders and our very driven Director (and founder) Ina. It is amazing the amount of work they have all put in to make this years camp a success. And we are all overflowing with ideas to build GLOW Georgia into something more than just a summer camp. One of our biggest aims, that we’ve put a lot of work into and will be putting even more work into in the coming months, is in developing our Taking GLOW Home initiative. We don’t want these girls to come to one week of camp and then never put the tools that they developed to work. We want them to go home and become leaders in their communities through projects, presentations, and creating GLOW Clubs. That’s one of the projects I’m really excited to focus on and develop in the coming year. We already have a number of really great ideas for it. They just take some funding which we’ll be working on. I’m also excited to be working on the marketing aspect of GLOW. We already have a great facebook page, GLOW Georgia. We have a not so great website which we’ll be rebuilding this fall. And we are working on rebranding GLOW as we are all in agreement that stick figure girls in dresses with hearts and a 1950 font GLOW doesn’t reflect what we want for our girls.  

About that, if any of you are or know a graphic designer who might be interested in helping us (pro bono) with a new logo design, we’d be thrilled to have your help. We’ve actually put out a call for logo designs with a deadline of September 15. At our strategic planning meeting on September 27, we’ll be reviewing the submissions we have and, if we have enough, we’ll be sharing the top 3 choices with our GLOW community for them to vote on. So, if you or anyone you know is interested, feel free to contact me for more details. The logo will be used on our website, t-shirts, banners, and any other things we choose to slap the GLOW logo on. And of course, we will give credit where credit is due!

So, with GLOW camp behind us, I’m super excited about focusing on establishing a really strong foundation for the NGO. While camp was an amazing experience, truth be told, I’m not really a camp kind of girl. For me, I’ve always gotten much more excited about the organizational development opportunities with GLOW. So, coming soon, we hope to have interns, GLOW Ambassador trainings, and maybe a winter camp. And we’ll also be working on ways that we can broaden our funding beyond just granting institutions (read individual fundraising). On top of all of this, we have some amazing new PCVs on the GLOW team too. These kids got skillz! Here’s one piece of evidence – a video from the first GLOW camp. Really looking forward to the next 10 months with GLOW! (That’s right, only 10 more months in Georgia!)

Summer in Georgia

Just tonight I returned to Kutaisi after being away for 27 days. And since my last post on July 3rd, I’ve probably been home a total of one week. It has been a crazy summer. And it feels so good to be home. But I’ve also had a lot of fun. And while I can’t maintain the energy level that has been required of me for the past month and a half indefinitely, I’ve enjoyed my time traveling about Georgia tremendously. So here is a rundown of what I’ve been up to since my last blog post:

1. July 4th weekend I spent a few days in Kobuleti, a resort town on the Black Sea, with some fellow Peace Corps friends. We had hot dogs. I made potato salad. And we even made smores. Sadly, my camera was the casualty of a rogue wave. It is now back in the States in the hopes of being repaired. It would be sad to finish out my time in PC without a camera to document it. I’m hoping the repair doesn’t break me.

2. My friend Marjory came to Georgia to visit me for a week from July 12-19. She is a Rochesterian who joined the Peace Corps just six weeks after me and is serving in Moldova. We met a few months before we both left and have kept in touch to compare notes throughout our service. In her short week here, we managed to see quite a few things. We headed to Racha for a taste of mountain village life replete with a supra and way too much chacha. Then we headed to Kazbegi which is a stunning area in Georgia and is a popular tourist destination. I wish I had had my camera. The next day we visited Uplistsikhe, near Gori, which is an ancient cave city and one of the oldest urban settlements in Georgia (which means it is REALLY old). We then finished up the week in Tbilisi where we attended the Swearing-In Ceremony of the G14 group of Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia. The best part of the ceremony was that Marjory finally got to see a Georgian dance performance which is always a treat.

3. The weekend after Marjory left, I was back in Tbilisi again beginning my 27 day marathon away from home. First stop, my friend Eddie’s wedding. Eddie is from Philly and works in Georgia for the Teach and Learn Georgia program, a Georgian volunteer English teacher program. He lived in Kutaisi until January when he moved to Tbilisi to be near his Georgian fiancé. It was my first Georgian wedding and it was a ton of fun. A traditional supra (for at least 100 guests), toasts, and Georgian dance. But we brought a little bit of American crazy with us by jumping into the pool fully decked out in our wedding attire. I may or may not have been the first one in the pool. The Georgians were happy to follow though.

4. Two days later I was headed to our Mid-service Training in Bakuriani (a ski town in the winter). The G13s (my group) met to reflect on our first year of service and what we want from our second year. Given all of the reflection, it was actually a bit of a heavy conference. Typically these gatherings are a time to let loose with fellow PCVs for a bit (along with whatever else is on the agenda). This one seemed to lack that quality. Partly because many of the sessions were rather emotionally heavy and partly because everyone was super busy with work on upcoming camps, committees, etc. Turns out, July is really a terrible time to have a conference for PCVs. Summer is busy, yo! Following the conference, I was back in Tbilisi for one day to fill in at a SPA (small program assistance) committee meeting. I’m an alternate on the committee so this was my first opportunity to attend a meeting. SPA gives out small grants (up to $5000) to Peace Corps members for projects. It was interesting to finally see the internal workings of the decision making process.

5. And finally, on August 2, I headed to Tskneti (a suburb of Tbilisi) for GLOW camp where I stayed for 19 days. There are two camps which we ran back to back with only a day and half break between the two. It was exhausting but totally worth it. GLOW will get its own post shortly (likely this weekend). It deserves its own post. It is by far the best thing I am doing in Georgia.

After GLOW was over, I stayed in Tbilisi for two nights just to enjoy some good food and hang out with friends. I didn’t feel in any rush to get home. But tonight, when I walked into my apartment, an incredible feeling of relief and happiness came over me. I didn’t expect to be so happy to be home. More than anything, I guess I’ve missed my solitude, as I have been sharing a room with someone every night with the rare exception for the past 27 days. My plan is to spend the next two days completely alone. It sounds like heaven.

Lest you think I’ll be slowing down now as summer is beginning to wrap up…not a chance. Next weekend I’ll be headed to Kobuleti again for a few days at the beach. The last of the summer. The following weekend, I’ll be taking a four day weekend to go to Tusheti, one of the most beautiful and remote areas of Georgia. Once again, so sad not to have my camera. The following weekend is the annual back to school camping trip at Shaori Lake in Racha. It is a last splash summer trip with fellow PCVs before the education volunteers start back to school. Then I’ve promised my PST host family that I would visit them in Khashuri the following weekend. And the final weekend of September, I will be in Tbilisi again for a GLOW Strategic Planning Meeting with the board. And that brings us to October which hopefully will be a bit quieter until I go to Wales for a week on October 16th. So, it seems this is my last weekend at home (once again) for quite a while. I plan to take full advantage. On the plus side, I haven’t even been home enough to notice that most of my Kutaisi friends are gone.

Someday my life will be quiet again. So, I’m just going to embrace this chaos while it is here.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, in the midst of all of this, the Terjola Day Care Center grant was fully funded! So now we can begin the renovation work. I’ll be sharing photos of that when the project is complete. Thank you to everyone who supported the project!

On Being American

This week I came across a New York Times feature called On Being American in honor of the 4th of July. Inspired by this, I thought I would share some of the thoughts I’ve had about being an American in my little more than a year living in Georgia. I’ll preface by saying, I’m sure my perspective would be quite different if I were living abroad in a Western developed country. But I’m not. I live in a country precariously positioned between east and west with a strong soviet legacy which, while developing, is not yet developed. My friends in Western Europe will rightly have a much more critical perspective on being American. And perhaps some things that I will attribute to “being American” are actually just Western. I’d be curious to get the feedback of those who have or are living in Western Europe.

Coming to Georgia and running headlong into the cultural norms and expectations here, I have come to be much more aware of the ways in which I am irrevocably American. First, my tendency to smile at strangers. In Georgia, that means either you’re crazy or, more charitably in my case, foreign. Georgians don’t give smiles away. They don’t even smile in pictures. Smiles are generally reserved for friends and family. Americans, by comparison, are a friendly people. Except for New Yorkers (just kidding, kind of). As a foreign woman, you learn quickly not to be friendly or smile particularly at men here. They take it as an invitation to approach you. They have some pretty offensive ideas about Western women in general which makes interactions with them less than desirable. So, it doesn’t take long to learn not to smile. Sad, but true.

But the most American quality I have, which is impossible for me to shake because it is so fundamental to my identity, is my profound value of individuality. This is the quality that has made my time in Georgia the most challenging. Georgians value community over the individual, an idea that before coming here would have struck me as positive. And it does have its positive points. For example, when I had job shadowers staying with me recently, one evening I hosted 10 Americans at my apartment for dinner. Two of my neighbors, seeing the parade of people coming to my apartment at dinner time, promptly came over with liters of wine for our dinner. And this isn’t unusual behavior for my neighbors. I’m regularly gifted wine, food, cake, invited for supras, etc. But there is a downside. I feel a bit as if I live in a fish bowl. And lest you think this is just because I am a foreigner, which does undoubtedly draw a bit more interest, let me assure you, as a Georgian I would also be living in a fish bowl. Particularly as a single woman. Part of being a society committed to community in Georgia is a sort of policing of your neighbors. Your neighbors make sure you are living according to Georgian values. For women, this means being a “კაი გოგო” or “good girl”, an oft-used compliment that I have come to have a visceral reaction to. It is always meant in the best way, but I can’t get past the fact that one becomes a “good girl” by internalizing all of the rules and values of a society that severally restricts women’s behavior. Failure to do so leads to a bad reputation which a Georgian woman can’t shake and impacts her relationships across the board. So, as much as the recent news from home about the SOTUS decision in the Hobby Lobby case frustrates me, I can’t help but be reminded that I currently live in a country where birth control isn’t even available and buying tampons at the pharmacy is a shameful thing. But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Back to individualism vs. community. My mom will tell you that I was born independent. So, living in a country that not only doesn’t value individualism but punishes those who live by different values chafes against me on a daily basis. Although I have become accustomed to it to a certain extent, it is still the most difficult thing about living here. And it has made me incredibly grateful to be from a country that values individualism over all.

One could make the case that, as an American, I don’t have to abide by Georgian customs and rules. Many of my European friends have made that case and live accordingly. Even Georgians have insisted that I’m American and don’t have to. However, the Peace Corps really drills into you the need to maintain a good reputation in your community. Failure to do so will impact the effectiveness of your service. And Peace Corps volunteers do serve in Georgia longer than most other volunteers I’ve met. If your community doesn’t respect you, they won’t work with you. So, I think Peace Corps makes a reasonable case. And I choose, to the best of my ability, to live accordingly.

The other day I was having a conversation with my landlord’s son Bruno. The occasion was the post-party party for his recent wedding. We were joined by a number of his friends. Bruno just recently returned from the US after living in Philadelphia for 12 years. Thus, his English is pretty good. His friends spoke little to no English. Bruno tends to be a bit harsh about Georgians who don’t speak English. I don’t judge as my Georgian is not much better than their English. While we were sitting there, he said that his friends were talking about how they want to go to America. He said, “they don’t know what it is like there now.” I didn’t ask for clarification of what he meant, but I assume he meant with high unemployment, a weak economy, and an environment that is less than friendly to immigrants. He rightly pointed out that with their lack of English and specialized skills, America would not live up to the vision they have of it. It’s a shame.

One of the things that I’ve really come to appreciate while in Georgia is the incredible diversity of the United States and all of the benefits that brings us. Georgians are very proud of their culture, particularly of their food, music and dance. So, anytime you are doing a cultural presentation, they want to know about your traditional foods, music, and dances. It is an odd question to ask an American. For them, our traditional foods must be pizza and hamburgers, but they actually come from Italy and Germany respectively. And any American abroad will tell you they spend far more time pining for Mexican food than pizza or hamburgers. Traditional music? I don’t know. The following types of music were created in the United States: blue grass, country, blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, rap, and hip-hop. I’m sure I’m missing some. That’s pretty incredible. But all of that came from people whose ancestors originated from other continents, most coming to the Americas as slaves from Africa. And dance? Couldn’t even make an educated statement on that one. But it can’t be denied that the United States has been incredibly influential through out the world culturally. And while I know a lot of that is due to our incredible economic strength and our ability as capitalists, I believe it is also because the United States has served as an incubator for new ideas and art forms. With so many cultures mingling together, you are bound to come up with art forms that are new, different, and compelling. I would argue that this is the same reason why the United States has been so innovative in technology historically. Our country isn’t only made up of people from all over the world, it is made up of people who immigrated. It takes a special kind of person to leave everything they know, everything that is comfortable and go to a new and strange place to start over. These people are typically driven in a way that the average person is not. And it takes a tremendous amount of courage and daring. A country that was founded by such people is bound to build some of those values into its fabric.

So, when I think of what it means to me to be American, first and foremost, I think about how we have traditionally valued individual freedom. And that, in general, people live their lives as they like. There are always those moralists who try to impose their values on others, but in general Americans aren’t fond of that. I also value our diversity and all that it brings, not the least of which is the food. It frustrates me that my friends here in Georgia who are hyphenated Americans have such a hard time convincing Georgians that they are in fact American. Maybe we should do a better job of reflecting our diversity in our media exports.

I’ll never be a patriot. To me, patriotism is the same thing as nationalism. And nationalism is second only to religion in causing wars. But I have developed a new appreciation for my country of birth since being here. And this 4th of July, I’m happy to celebrate its birth. Which I’ll be doing at the beach with a bunch of my fellow PCVs.

Too many goodbyes

So, the time of leaving has commenced. I’ve been dreading this time for months. Not only are the G12s (the PCV group ahead of mine) leaving now, but so are most of my ex-pat friends in Kutaisi. The end of May marked the beginning of the mass exodus when I said goodbye to my friend Chase. Shortly after, Shawn followed. Last week, began with Joe (who will be back in September thankfully) and then continued with the first waves of G12s leaving. I’ve made a lot of good friends in the G12 group. They are some great people and I’m really going to miss their presence here in Georgia. They brought a special brand of crazy that I happen to love. The hardest person to say good bye to was John, who left two days ago, and I am still in a bit of an exhausted stupor. Georgia won’t be the same without his EXTRA special brand of crazy. He’s personally responsible for most of the best times I’ve had here and he’s been my best friend on top of it. The coming weeks include many more goodbyes to more PCVs and some of my closest friends in Kutaisi. It marks the end of an era in my Peace Corps service.

Life in Georgia is about to change drastically for me. Early last fall, I was struggling here. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to stay. But in October, things began to change. Ann and I started to make friends in Kutaisi. I suddenly had a full life here. Before I knew it, I actually felt a little overwhelmed by my social life. I’ve made the kind of friendships that I believe are only made while living abroad. I’ve met people from all over the world and we’ve bonded over our shared foreignness. And had a lot of fun together. I know that in the coming year, I will make new friends who find themselves in Kutaisi for three months, a year, or longer. But, at the moment, I’m not at all sure I’ll be as open to it. I feel as if I have said too many good byes lately. And I’m not sure I want to set myself up for even more of them. I’m sure this feeling will pass but it is very real at the moment.  We will be getting two new PCVs in Kutaisi in mid-July. They are a young married couple, Whitney and Charlie. I haven’t met them yet (as I haven’t met many of the new PC trainees). But I will at least meet Charlie on July 2nd when I am at the PST training site for a panel discussion. No matter what happens with the new Kutaisi PCVS, I already have Ann. I have the feeling we’ll be ships passing in the night this summer as she is just as busy as me. But I’m really lucky to have her and couldn’t ask for a better site mate. And I’m so glad that she’s not leaving until I do, because I just don’t think I could handle that.

I guess it is a good thing that my summer is already completely booked. I have not a single weekend free until the end of August. No exaggeration. I’ll not have much time to dwell on the massive holes certain people have left in my life. For July 4th, I’ll be at the beach in Kobuleti with a group of PCVs celebrating the American Independence day. The next weekend, my friend Marjory who I met in Rochester and is now serving in PC Moldova will arrive for a week long visit. I’m looking forward to showing her around Georgia. We’ll spend a few days around Kutaisi and then head to Khazbegi for some hiking and the obligatory church site-seeing.  Then maybe we’ll head to Gori to visit the Stalin museum and then spend her last day here in Tbilisi where we’ll attend the swearing in ceremony for the new volunteers. The following weekend I will head out of Kutaisi again on a trip that will have me away from home (and the office) for nearly a month! First, I have a wedding in Tbilisi, followed by a Peace Corps conference which leads right in to GLOW camp. For logistical reasons, we are doing both one week GLOW camps back to back. So, I will be at our GLOW camp site from August 2-20. Crazy! The plus side, it may be the first month in a while that I haven’t been completely broke by the middle of the month. So, after GLOW, I will head back home to Kutaisi after having been gone since July 26th. But because rest is for weak, I’ll head out again after about a week and a half on a trip to Tusheti, a region I’ve been wanting to visit in Georgia since I arrived. So, that’s my entire summer. It feels like it is already over in a way.

When I think about my remaining time in Georgia, it feels as if it is going to be over in a flash. Watching all of the G12s leave has been tough. Not only saying good bye to them, but also witnessing how hard it is for them to say good bye to their Georgian friends and families and their fellow PCVs. Also, hearing about their plans or lack of plans has already started me worrying about what’s next for me. Knowing that in pretty much exactly one year, I’ll be saying good bye and having to answer the question of what’s next brings a feeling of dread. At the same time, there are also reasons to look forward to that time. But, in the meantime, I have so much work to do. And while my first year was marked by figuring things out work-wise and filling in the gaps with a busy social life, I think the second year will be all about work and being productive. I’ve got a number of plans that I want to see come to fruition in the next year and it will take a lot of work to get there. But I’m pretty confident I can do it. Just let me take a quick nap first.