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Birthdays in Georgia are a bit different than those in the USA. More accurately, I would say they highlight some differences in culture. I'm not one for celebrating myself. So I always find my birthday a bit awkward, but I remind myself that every celebration isn't strictly about the person they are honoring. Its about all the people whose lives you've touched. The celebration is for them as much, if not more so, than it is for me. With that in mind, I would like to tell you about how my birthday went. My only regret is that I left my camera at home today. So I'm lacking some pictures.
Things started Friday, three days before my birthday. My PST (Pre-Service Training) host family in Gori called to see if it was OK that they came for a visit on Sunday. Absolutely! I was going to be heading to Tbilisi Saturday morning to pick up materials for FLEX from the PC office and to see if I could find some ingredients so I could cook for my host family, now both families!.
Saturday, crazy early drive to Tbilisi. Get the stuff from the PC office. Find what I think is acceptable meat and cream from Carffour (did I spell that right?) in what was my most surreal moment to date: Tbilisi Mall is cleaner and shinier than any mall I've seen in the US since King of Prussia opened.
Sunday I grab the rest of the ingredients I need at the local market, and I start the prep: dicing walnuts, peeling garlic and onion, chopping pepper, cutting up tasty purple basil, mixing herbs, etc. The salad was the easy part. The pasta takes a while in America. Now imagine having to do almost all of it from scratch while sharing the stove with your host mother (hey Keti!) who is also cooking. The cream turned out to be perfect (yes!), the meat not so much, but it was still good. To say there was too much food would be an understatement, but hey, leftovers were pretty swank this morning.
So we had Italian pasta and a lettuce, walnut, orange salad (balsamic vinegar with olive poil dressing) along side more traditional Georgian fare, including Khachapuri from my family's bakery, Khinkhali, cucumber & tomato salad, roasted skewered pork, a pile of bread, and stuff I am totally forgetting. Also, two cakes, which are all but gone now!
My Gori host family also gave me three presents. First and foremost was their company, love, and affection. Anyone that says they aren't at least a little bit nervous when they are thrust into a home with strangers when you can barely communicate is lying. My Gori family welcomed me with open arms and adopted me. Second, is a nice red (Georgian red!) sweater because Sachkhere gets really cold. Third is a copy of Shota Rustaveli's The Knight in Tiger Skin, which Facebookers may have already seen.
The Knight in Tiger Skin is Georgia's national epic. I've been told that Rustaveli was trained in Greece, and he was inspired by the writings of Homer. However, there seems to be little concrete information on Rustaveli. So I can't say for sure. Similarly, the title of the epic is in dispute. Many claim it is The Knight in Panther's Skin. A more literal translation is closer to "One with vepkhi's skin." Vepkhi is tiger, which is also how my Gori host family identifies me thanks to Facebook and the Tiger Temple in Thailand. It was because of that connection that they first introduced me to The Knight in Tiger Skin and what consequently got me interested in reading it. Anyhow, some scholars claim that vepkhi essentially means any large cat that isn't a lion: tiger, panther, or leopard. Side note, panther and leopard are both avapa. In fairness, the Georgian language has changed a lot since Rustaveli's time. In fact, the epic is written with letters that don't exist today! So such a chance is quite possible. Digging a bit deeper, one could even argue that the animal is a reference to the panther ridden by Dionysus, but that's not for me to weigh in on yet. Maybe once I've read it.
Now lets go to Monday, my actual birthday; though, if you consider time zone differences, I technically won't be born for a couple hours yet. Walking to school I ran into one of my counterparts, Nino (yes, they are all named Nino, but she knows who she is). Where I wasn't expecting anything (especially as her daughter's birthday was Sunday!), she produce a small packet of cards, post cards actually. It turns out that this is a real treasure, and I wish I had a scanner with me to give you better images. These postcards all have pictures of old Tbilisi ~1890. Apparently it was Tpilisi back then (though the English translation on the cards is Tiflis). These provide amazing snapshots of what life was like back then!
NOTE: I could not get the gallery options to do what I want and also show captions that provide a description for each picture. So I am also uploading these pictures to G+ so you can see larger versions with captions!
Right, so we get to school, head to class as normal, and for every single class they kids sing happy birthday. Fortunately, one of the kids had the same birthday as me in one class so I had her come up to the front to get sung to too. Anyways, after first period something really strange happened.
We head to the teacher's room to change registers (the books of attendance for each class), and I'm not allowed in. The first and only thing that enters my brain is that one of the teachers must be changing. Nearly all of the teachers are women, and, you know, it happens. No biggie. So, I'm waiting for Nino to change books when I'm told to go in. Turns out they needed more time to put the cake and sundries together. What's going through my brain now? "Break's only five minutes, we have to get to class".
All right all right, adapting to cultural differences. Teachers sing the Georgian happy birthday song and light fireworks on the cake. Seriously. These are super sparkly, short lived fireworks. Not roman candles, but they are bright and there's plenty of smoke. There's also a 38 for me to blow out... Then out comes the shot glasses and cognac. I'm not a big drinker, and, in America, I'd be fired for showing up to class with alcohol on my breadth. I'm also still thinking (and now saying), "don't we have to get to class?"
Each of the teachers present graciously gives me a toast. My host grandfather, also the deputy director and a math teacher, goes first and takes a shot. All of the rest go in turn, but not all drink. I finish by thanking them for being so warm and welcoming me into the extended family and the school, because that is totally true. Its an amazing gift to receive. I know the we talk about Southern hospitality back in the states, and where that certainly exists, Georgia does hospitality better than anyone. No question. Oh, I also cut the cake (my third one for those keeping track), which disappeared in no time, and, yes, I conceded to one shot. Again, this is between first and second period.
As for me worries about class? It turns out that they rearranged the day's schedule so that the long break was after first period today, and no body told me. =P
Back home, this afternoon my Sachkhere host family gave me two gifts. First and foremost was their company, love, and affection. You're tossed from one family to the next, and now everyone has high expectations of you. You aren't going to fix all the problems, but you are here to help. This too can make you a bit nervous, and the hospitality and immediate acceptance as a family member does a lot to set that at ease. Second was the dagger shown below. It is similar to those worn by dancers in their traditional garb, which is patterned off of knights' clothing. Learning Georgian dancing is another goal I have set for myself. With this, clearly no pressure.