We all need a home
There are so many ways to put Home into images – favorite sayings, stories, songs, photos and video. I tried to think about how to express my feeling of “home” here in Georgia, without exactly comparing it to my home in the U.S., my last Peace Corps home in Ghana or anywhere else I have been in the world, for a week or months.
Each are unique and stand on their own. Ultimately, it comes down to my personal level of happiness… and most importantly, support from family at home.
My family is my home.
Georgia is my home.
Home is a Shelter
In my home, I have a bedroom in a sunny southwest corner of the house. Huge French windows, maybe 8’ tall, swing open to the yard, garden and orchard in the back. Two twin beds, a desk, a mirrored dressing table and a heavy fine wooden armoire complete the space. This is my personal space for the year, where I will spend almost half my time sleeping.
But the real action is the time I spend with my Georgia family in the combined kitchen, dining area and TV/living room. It is where I go to be with my gracious host family.
The outer walls are concrete-spackled over concrete block. The roof is galvanized metal. It may have been built in the early 1900's (or late 1800's, for all I know), but has been updated. There is a modern kitchen and bathroom, two more bedrooms, a formal dining room for the Supra and guests, as well as the piano, and a space for the refrigerator and washing machine. Clothes get hung on the line on the back porch. No central heating, but we have ways of being warm in the little winter I have experienced so far, including a powerful gas space heater. Internet access comes with the cable connection for the television.
My home has a small garden and, like most Georgian households, includes a grape arbor. Food is put aside for the winter, fruits are turned into juices, and I love the wide variety of grape-inspired foods that make their way to the table: wine, vinegar, ketchup, juice, jams, jellies, a pudding called pelamushi made from grape juice… and I am certain there are other grape delights I haven’t yet discovered. Even orange peels (from mandarin oranges when in season or the bazaar when not) are made into sweetened treats/jams.
My home has everything I need in a shelter.
Home is Shared Language
Peace Corps arranges a homestay situation, and the people in the home become my new family. My deda (mother, Nana) is three years older than my U.S. daughter and speaks enough English that I have become lazy about learning Georgian, especially since part of my job at work is to help the staff learn English. My bebia (grandmother, Rusudan) is 7 years younger than my U.S. mother and speaks no English, which in turn motivates me to learn Georgian. We communicate through my broken Georgian, notes that I can write easier than pronounce, pointing, air pictures, and smiles. When it all breaks down, we turn to a translation dictionary or Google Translate for help. Every time I learn a new word or phrase, my bebia laughs and laughs – with me, not at me.
It is the three of us, no children living in the house, as my deda’s daughters are grown and in college or married and at work in the capital of Tbilisi. These daughters (Nino and Eka, my sisters in Peace Corps parlance) are fluent in English and it is a pleasure when they come to visit.
One of the beauties of the Georgian language is its script, and the fact that it is one of the 10 oldest languages in the world. Each of the 38 characters represents a sound, making it easy to write in Georgian… but the sounds are hard for my mouth and throat to create. Still working on it!
Here are some samples of Kartuli script for the names of me and my grandchildren (my shvili-shvili – შვილი-შვილი):
Kate (using Georgian version Keti): ქეთი
Home is Shared Culture
Kutaisi is a city of roughly 180,000 people – a bit less than the size of Madison, Wisconsin, if there were no University of Wisconsin campus. A beautiful Central Park with shade trees, statues, gardens and water fountains, benches and walkways, create a natural community gathering spot. City Hall is located next to the park. The Opera House is on another side, and the Cultural Center on yet another side, creating downtown venues for music and dance events. The Cultural Center is where I recently saw Erisioni, one of Georgia’s amazing premier state song and dance ensembles… established in 1885!
All of this makes Kutaisi a walkable city, at least for the core downtown area. Cars rule the road, but pedestrians do have enforceable zebra crossings. For further distances, public transportation is plentiful and inexpensive (~US$0.15 for a bus, ~US$0.20 for a marshrutka or ~US$2.00-3.00 for a taxi anywhere in town).
Other parks scattered throughout the city add to pleasant living conditions. Most construction is in the one-to three-story height, although some newer buildings for offices, hotels and high-rise apartments are upwards of four to six stories high. With few elevators and still occasional blackouts and brownouts of electricity, one would not want to live on the top floor!
We are just coming through Orthodox Easter week, which has a number of cultural traditions. I can only begin to touch on a few.
Chiakokonoba: I learned that one of the traditions from centuries ago is a bonfire on the Wednesday night of Holy Week, and one must leap over it to purge themselves of evil spirits. I was assured by several people that this was not part of Orthodox Christian tradition, but something from before that time. Since Christianity came to Georgia around 100 AD, and became the state religion around 300 AD, it is clear it has long, embedded roots. My family had our Chiakokonoba on Thursday night, when Eka arrived from Tbilisi. Rusudan and Eka were in charge of setting up the bonfire in the common driveway between the four houses that create our dead-end alley. I finally learned why Rusudan had saved all the branches trimmed from trees in the yard: they were for this night, this bonfire. They lit the bonfire and one by one, people joined from the houses. At one point, Eka made a running leap over the fire. By the time I went to bed, no one else had done so. But we all cheered her on.
Food is a huge part of the Easter tradition. Last Wednesday I came home from work and noticed a rooster tied by his leg to the fence in our courtyard. An hour later, he arrived in the house, headless in an enamel pan, and Nana and Rusudan took him to the back porch to clean and defeather over a small electric grill with boiling water. Massive work went into food preparation. A huge pail of eggs, maybe six dozen or more, was brought to the house early in the week, and these eggs were dyed a deep blood-red color, some with religious emblems applied. Buckets of dough were kneaded and set to rise.
On Easter Eve, Nana and Rusudan were a team, making khachapuri, the cheese-filled bread that Georgia is so famous for. It’s like a thin, cheese-stuffed pizza, but so much better. I told my Peace Corps friends and Tbilisi Peace Corps staff that “my bebia makes the bestkhachapuri!” And when her sister, Londa, came that evening, she reaffirmed that everyone thought this was true.
On Easter Day, I woke to a kitchen table with a basket of fresh spring grass, eggs tucked inside, and a loaf of Pasque bread, looking cunningly like a rabbit head peeking through its raisin eyes. The colored eggs were eaten at breakfast, but mostly to be used when we visited the graves of the family relatives who have passed on. At each grave, candles were lit, and eggs and Pasque bread left for the dead. But the living eat and drink as well, khachapuri and wine laid out on the granite table that is part of the family plot, bringing company and sustenance to the soul.
Home is Community
My community is safe. I have never felt at risk walking about. Neighbors pay attention to who is walking around, yet their awareness of me as a newcomer is always refrained and discrete. No staring or intrusion but if I greet with a friendly “gamarjoba!” (a Georgian hello), I get a friendly response in return. “Gangs” of youth gathered in the streets are… just kids having fun. Note that I do still keep my common sense and street awareness intact!
Friends are an important part of the community. Most neighbors are friends, and there are benches at the backyard fence for daily kibbutzing. Once a friend, any gift or request is possible, and it’s a little disconcerting to me to receive so much. Trips to local sites (remote churches and monasteries, caves and hiking areas), invitations to large and small dinner events, locally-made jewelry, gifts for every event (Mother’s Day, International Women’s Day, birthdays, etc., etc.)… How do I repay all this kindness?!
One of the things I’ve noticed is pets. I don’t know anyone who has a pet cat, though I see a few cats on the streets. Dogs, however, are kept at some houses, most importantly as security. Fortunately, most (all?) houses have iron fences, so the dogs with their ferocious and frantic barking can’t harm me, but they do like to frighten passersby on the sidewalk, lurking behind the bushes to start barking wildly as we pass. There is a particular dog on my walk to and from work every day. He is often sitting on the front stoop. He loves to surprise me whenever possible. I wish I could capture a photo of him, but fortunately, he is behind a big fence. Checking the Internet, I believe he is a Caucasian Shepherd Dog. He may be a dog, but he looks and sounds like a bear!
Street dogs in Kutaisi have a special place. Unclaimed dogs are caught, given a rabies shot, neutered, then released back to the street. They have learned by survival of the fittest to claim their territory of some blocks, but also to treat humans as food sources who should not be attacked. There is a small dog on my way to/from work who likes to sleep in a certain sunny spot on the sidewalk on a certain street. That is its territory. Dogs may wander the sidewalks and streets, but either get out of the way as cars approach, or the cars take care to avoid the dogs. There is a clear relationship established.
Home is Family
One of the ways I’ve stayed in touch with family in the U.S. is through the Peace Corps Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program. I setup a partnership with my granddaughter Emily’s 5th grade class before I left, stopping in for a 45-minute chat with the kids. We now exchange fun emails, loaded with questions from their end and cultural responses, photos and tidbits from my end.
Whether I receive support from my family in the U.S. or the companionship and friendship of my family in Georgia, a successful Peace Corps service depends in large part on the support of family wherever you are.
Kate Schachter is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia.