I was very lucky in the placement process. Not only do I have indoor plumbing and internet at home, but a fabulous host family as well. We live in a fourth-floor walk-up in the Soviet part of town, down the hill from the older part of Telavi. My room faces north, so I spend hours looking out my window at the Alazani valley, Caucasus mountains, and ever-shifting cast of characters in the courtyard below. I’m not the only one for whom this serves as entertainment. If you look up from the network of gravel paths between the massive concrete block buildings, you’ll notice someone leaning on their elbows, peering down to check on the kids playing nearby, or perhaps daydreaming as their gaze fixes on some unknown spot across the hazy lowlands.
My school is just three buildings away. Coming home from lessons each day, I encounter many of my students, playing or studying outside in the common areas between buildings. They’re always eager to say hello, and chit-chat as much as their English and my Georgian allows. The patchwork of roads and green spaces, along with short-cuts and abandoned shops, structurally questionable rooms built onto balconies, and daily growing stacks of firewood remind everyone of the ease with which the past flows into the future. Life makes itself known by refusing the buildings’ suggestion of anonymity, leaving clothes out to dry and pulleys to lower forgotten necessities to kids waiting on the ground.
Climbing the stairwell, it seems a bleak place. The green and beige walls, paint now decades old, are stained with years of spills and the graffiti of a hundred bored teenagers. The concrete stairs have begun to slope, eroded by thousands of footsteps. Don’t put too much faith in the metal banister, as it might not hold your weight.
Inside, the hallway is dark, but light peeks in from the kitchen, straight ahead, my bedroom to the right, and the living room on the left. The doors have glass panes which, when the electricity isn’t working, let you find your way to the windows.
The living room looks particularly inviting as the sunshine filters in through lace curtains. The furniture seems to have been built on an entirely different scale than the apartments here, so things get a bit crowded sometimes. In any case, there’s always more than enough places for everyone to sit comfortably. The radiator below the windowsill is, as far as I can tell, the only one in the house. Thankfully we don’t have one of the cheap metal wood-stoves, another legacy of the Russians, with their stovepipes sticking out of makeshift holes in walls and purpose-built stovepipe windows.
Stuffed animals sit atop the backs of the velvety olive green couches. Were it not for the flat- screen computer and television, one might think time had stopped when the “Iron Curtain” fell. Outside, someone’s speakers play folk songs for the neighborhood, almost drowning out the sound of another neighbor chopping wood.
My room is still quite plain. I haven’t put things on the wall, as it’s not the custom here, but a rug masks the old doorway that was walled in years ago. This apartment has seen several such transformations, including an extension into the apartment next-door. To reiterate the furniture situation, I have in this small space two sofas (one of which is folded down as my bed), three chairs, an armoire, a desk, an end-table, and a television with the attending shelving unit. I do yoga most days, and each time must rearrange the room so that my mat can fit.
The bathroom and toilet are separate, both in the hall, and next to the kitchen for plumbing purposes. I don’t want to describe them in detail, but they’re somewhere in the middle of the spectrum from western- to eastern-style facilities. The washing machine is in the bathroom, and is probably half the size of standard American ones, if not smaller. Most importantly, we do have hot water, though the water heater is far from automatic. Water here is on a schedule, but I seldom notice when it’s not on, because we have a tank that fills during the hours water flows.
The kitchen is a bit rough, though the appliances are fairly standard european (small) ones. It looks as if running water and soviet particle-board countertops may not be the best of friends. What really matters here is that the food is delicious, the people are kind, and wine comes home in old soda bottles.
We sit around the table for one or two meals each day, in the evening as everyone in the household works. Bread is the center of most meals, though rice and potatoes make occasional appearances as well. Beans, cheese, soup, meat and several kinds of home-made sauces keep things exciting. The bread here is usually white, either in western-style loaves, or shaped like kayaks. I prefer the kayak-shaped tonis puri, for it’s chewier texture and relative novelty. Much like Armenian lavash, tonis puri is traditionally baked in a round wood-fired oven, with stretched dough stuck on the inside of the “tone” as it bakes.
It’s a busy time of year, with the harvest and school taking up much of my host-family’s time, so things are fairly quiet when we’re at home. Georgians tend to keep later hours, so after taking in as much Georgian-dubbed Turkish soap opera as I can handle, I am usually the first to retire. I hope to synch my schedule with the local one soon, but my brain is currently so exhausted from so much listening and so little understanding that I’m seldom awake much past eleven. Including my bedtime, I am in many ways the equivalent of a Georgian baby.
Gradually I’m able to make meaningful sentences in Georgian, and have even had conversations with locals in the bazaar. Even though I must often supplement my still-meager vocabulary with Russian words, people are always thrilled to hear a foreigner speaking their language. The most difficult part of Georgian is the verbal morphology; where in English we often use prefixes and suffixes to identify the tense of a verb, Georgian manages to hide this information in several separate sounds throughout the word. Along with the rather musical additions to words that make sentences flow correctly, you can imagine how challenging it is to understand, much less speak with any sort of fluency.
Since I have just signed on for another semester, I’ll be based here in Telavi until June. I’m looking forward to exploring the region more and seeing the seasons change. I already feel so lucky for the time I’ve spent here. It’s hard tho think of leaving a place that has welcomed me with such open arms.