Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The power of the written word

Dear friend,

Today, like every week, I received your letter in the mail. I read it before I could get inside my door. Actually, it only takes about 20 steps to get to my door so I opened it on the way and then just stood outside reading through it all before I could punch in my code. I left it out on the counter so I could read it again before it was added to the impressive stack you’ve helped me accumulate.

I’m lucky to have a friend like you who keeps a steady flow of snail mail coming my way. They’re never for a birthday or a holiday; just to say hello. You’re very diligent - I might even go as far as to say OCD. You’re letters are always perfectly addressed on the same crisp plain stationary. Now that I think about it, I pretty sure you have a specific pen for the ritual as well. They always start with the same simple greeting and end with the same formal salutation. But the content thereafter is always unique.

They make me laugh; they make me think; they make me envious of your story telling ability. I know I’m not the only one you write to. We’re not the oldest or closest of friends. There is never any romance. Your letters give me a little insight into your day or into your complex mind. Your letters are a joy!

I, on the other hand, am horrible at replying - sending out a few per month if I’m lucky. I’m trying though, I swear. My stationary is never the same. My pen sometimes dries up mid-thought. I send two or three at a time when I’ve forgotten to go to the post office for weeks on end. But I think you still enjoy them.

In your last letter –post marked from The English Channel- at the height of your story you came to the end of the strict two page limit and said “ I guess you’ll just have to wait until next time to hear the rest of the story,” and I know I will because you’ve successfully avoided the virtual news feed. The slow steady flow of information between us is comfortable and rewarding and it's how I imagine people felt in simpler times.

Though this letter is virtual, and not actually intended for you, I have sent out two written letters today. One is a week old; the other two weeks – and they’ll take another ten days to get to you. Oh well, the news will be fresh to you non the less. Enjoy!


Your grateful friend

Friday, October 14, 2011

"You can dance if you want..."

On this particular night I found myself stranded in the bathroom, wearing my favorite royal purple, A-line party dress. It had seen me through countless celebrations without fail - until tonight. The side zipper busted wide open. There was absolutely NO chance of fixing it. My entire side, from armpit to waist, was exposed. I thanked my lucky orthodox saints that I wore a bra.

The culprit: a wedding, followed by extremely filling Georgian party food, more than a few run-ins with my favorite babua and his wine horn, a significantly expanded midsection and dance; lots and lots of dance.

I knew I couldn’t hide in the bathroom all night but it would have been nice. I was an out of town guest with nowhere to go and nothing to change into. I briefly considered going balls to the wall and showing my party fowl with pride except, I was exposing a little too much and the crowd of old men were a little too drunk. So, I opted to strategically wrap myself in a shawl. I also knew that despite polite refusal, turned to pleas of exhaustion, injury or illness, I would soon be back on the dance floor. After all, dance is the only way I know how to connect with a group of 50+ middle-aged Georgians and they’ve already seen that I’ve got the moves.

Save this one slightly uncomfortable situation, dance has always been a savior for me when living or traveling abroad. As a foreigner abroad, a constant battle is breaking down barriers between yourself and the locals and dance has been there for me every time. I try to find a social club or class everywhere I go. My preference is usually towards any local style of dance but when that’s not available, go Latin or ballroom (salsa, rumba, bachata, swing) – it’s everywhere, I promise!

No problem if you can’t speak the language since you rely mostly on physical demonstration. If you happen to have two left feet or just don’t care for dancing these same principle can apply for organized sports or learning a musical instrument but let’s get real – you won't have nearly as much fun at their after-parties. When you dance with people you can start to connect on a whole new level. At this point you are no long just a foreigner but peer.

Here is my list of top dance destinations. Some I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and others are on my wish list.

Republic of Georgia (check)

It couldn’t go unmentioned. Most of you are probably looking it up on the map and questioning whether it’s part of Russia. It’s not.

Georgian’s are die-hard patriots and claim to be the first to do just about everything since. They even claim to be the birthplace of Adam and Eve. They have an extremely rich culture that is based heavily in music and dance. It’s not just for an elite few(though done superhumanly by famous dance company, Erisioni) but it’s for everyone! No celebratory dinner is complete without the men of the table busting into 4-part harmony and everyone else breaking into dance. While each region has their own style, the man is generally parading around chest high in the air making wild expressions with his face and the woman is gracefully tiptoeing around him.

Everyone else:

Mexico (check)

They’ve got a lot more to offer than ‘the Mexican Hat Dance’. If you’re in Durango or the North in general you’ll find the cowboys dancing a bouncy polka after a typical nights barbeque. Don’t let the name fool you. While on a road trip from Monterrey to Mazatlan my companions and I cut a rug with the locals just about every night. The polka is not joke. I’ve been polka-ed right off the dance floor.

Spain (half a check)

A country obviously known for Flamenco. Gorgeous flowing skirts you can whip around with attitude, little clappers or fans…not really sure. I totally missed that boat when in Barcelona last year. Still regret it but I kept busy making myself a regular at the salsa clubs, which were amazing, and also a little Brazilian underground club with leads me to my next wish list destination…

Brazil (wish list)

The dance that calls me there is not samba or bossa nova but a country dance from the northeast called forró. I fell in love with forró in Barcelona in a sweaty underground club that hosted the amazing group Forró Afiado every Thursday night. I’m convinced that every Brazilian living in Barcelona was in attendance because at any one time you could find at least five guys named Osvaldo. It’s a very simple, close-hold, low to the ground dance and just sways you into a half dream.

Sub-Saharan Africa (wish list)

Sorry to say that I am not nearly cultured enough to know the names for any African dance. There is just something about the stomping, shaking, and striding that I know I would absolutely love. Or maybe I’ve just seen Shakira’s Waka-waka video a few too many times.


CUBA!! (wish list)

My heart has belonged to salsa for quite some time now and this is where I imagine it is the most pure.

Ah, the list could actually go on forever. At the moment I live in South Korea so I’m obviously dancing… salsa! Yes, I told you it was everywhere. My first performance with my current team was last weekend. Our show was a mix of salsa, cha-cha, rumba, and K-pop. Our venue: a German Brewery with a Bulgarian cover band in Busan, South Korea. The power of dance breaking down barriers once again.

photo credit: Stephanie Santana

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Let’s first address the mighty elephant(or should I say cow) in the room – I haven’t posted here in 8 months. I know, I have never actually been a model of diligence. You’re probably laughing at my stats on the right. Yea, 6 posts in over a year. Most people update their facebook/twitter more than that in a day.

To be fair, following up the tales of village life in Georgia is a fairly daunting task. Things are just a little less exciting when you don’t have militant-style swat teams showing up in the middle of the night or an 80-year-old woman crawling into bed with you on a regular basis. (Swat team story to come at a later date.)

Add to that, I’m not a natural writer. Words don’t flow out of me but sort of timidly emerge a few times before they’re brave enough to come out. They’re then usually sent back in, rearranged, edited, and given a permanent inferiority complex. Yes, we are still talking about the words.

All of that aside, I’m giving this blog another go around. Mostly because I’ve been living abroad off-and-on(mostly on) for the past 5 years and I’ve got a lot of stories to tell and a lot of self-therapy to tend to. ;) Ah, it already feels good to be back. Premature gratification? Absolutely. But what can I say - I’m an optimist.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Farewell

Sorry this is coming about a month and a half in delay! It must have taken me this long to process that I wasn’t going back. Not yet, anyway.

When I signed up to be in Georgia for one semester I knew that saying good-bye would be difficult. I’ve said my farewells to many amazing people in the past few years and it never gets any easier. In the end we press on with great memories and hope that we’ll see each other again soon. With Georgia it was very different. Of course I had many great memories but the chances of seeing any of these people soon (my Georgian family, teachers and students) are much slimmer. My last few weeks were filled with laughter and tears, singing and dancing, begging and crying, eating and drinking, second thoughts, fear and guilt. Now that I’m home the feelings are still fresh, I still don’t have a clear head, but I’m trying to make peace with it all.

First I have to say just how amazing my school is. After the initial hesitation to my leaving (cornering, begging, pleading and crying…mostly during class) all seemed to be slowly accepted and a grand send-off was planned in my honor. During my last week there were only two actual days of class. The other three were entirely dedicated to my farewell. Just a quick note to say: certain events which follow are only possible in a village school. Other schools have silly things like curriculums and police security called Manditors which would prevent such festivities.

The first day’s events blew me away. I was told to invite some friends and that each class would have a small performance or presentation for me. It was so much more.
I was locked in the library the whole day so it would all be a surprise; there were no classes. When the time finally came for the party to start I was handed a bouquet of roses and then blindly lead through the school to meet my friends who had just arrived by taxi. The entire school was gathered outside to greet them and bring us all inside for the big reveal. When we walked inside the floors and walls of the school were covered in chalk with messages to me. The entrance to the school was turned into a mini concert hall, music was already booming, the kids took their places, and my friends and I were placed in the front row.

As I looked across at my students I spotted my awesome 11th grade boys. They’d already recited Georgian love poems to me the week before and I knew they were planning to do the same today. Goga(one of my more eager students) gave me a wink, unzipped his sweater and reveled a specially made t-shirt underneath. It read “ I <3>

The 5th class began reading short excerpts about how they love me ☺ Giga, my favorite little muppet-voiced man, forgot his lines and started to cry. I took mental note to find and give him a big hug as soon as I could get away from my post. Then, Mindia (please see my last post for details about this wonderful boy) started off the show. He stood before me taking deep breaths and preparing for his big moment. On came the music and he sang… “Besame Mucho” with all the bravado of a true latino man. These past few weeks he’s been following me everywhere, staring unashamed , and proposing plans of how I might stay. As a fifth grade boy who doesn’t speak Spanish I don’t think he realized that he was singing such a passionate song (or did he?) but it was no genuinely Mindia I couldn’t help but love every bit.
Next, the 6th class came out and performed a few jokes that no one seemed to get. Nani and Nelly from the 6th class along with LUKA from the 7th class performed a traditional Georgian adjaruili dance. It was amazing! Then came more dancing! One of my 11th grade boys, who often travels around Georgia and Turkey to dance (and doesn’t care much about school incidentally), brought along two of his friends and put on an amazing show. When the music comes on it’s like someone flips a switch and every macho Georgian boy turns into an overly theatrical stage performer - just three handsome teenage boys tearing up the dance floor and every boy in the audience ready to jump in.

After that my 11th grade boys graced me once again by reciting Georgian love poems while holding forth small bowls of wine. Finally, Marissa and I got to perform the dance that took us way to long to learn and wasn’t nearly as impressive as the kids but of course everyone joined in at the end and it turned into a big dance party.

When I thought they’d done all they could do I was dragged back outside where there was a tree ready to be planted in my honor: the Stepa tree. Finally my friends and I were taken upstairs for a huge feast, lots of wine and tcha-tcha(all home made). I was so touched, emotionally exhausted from laughing, crying, ect and then I remembered…I was only Tuesday. I still had four more days of saying goodbye...or good-buy.

Here are some highlights from the remainder of the week: - Wine chugging contest with my 10th graders. - A cake fight. - Boney M dance party. - Wine chugging contest with my 11th graders. - Dressed in traditional Georgian costume and forced to learn a new dance in 10 minutes. - TV Crew appearance in the village. - Surprise! I must perform this new dance in traditional clothing for the TV crew. - Wine chugging contest with my 12th graders.

As for saying goodbye to my family - it wasn’t any easier. Of course I had to go back to the village and say my farewells to Bebia Natela. In our last few days together we did a lot of cooking. She new I wanted to really get a few of her famous recipes down before I left. She surprised me by cooking up a recipe I’d made for her: my great-grandmother’s Mexican fideo. Of course she’d given it a few of her own Georgian modifications.
After a quiet dinner Bebia brought out her little guitar and told me to dance! We’ve been doing it every time I stay there since she discovered there is someone willing to listen to her music (the teenage boys have long given up). At night we share a bed and she reminds me that the piss pot is just outside the door if I need it. Still, no thanks.

The next day we go out and pick a huge sack full of mandarin oranges for my train ride. A group of us will be boarding the night train to head to Tbilisi. Mari comes to pick me up and take me to the apartment where I’ll finish packing and get ready for our farewell dinner. As we drive off, bebia hands me a rose through the window and tells me she loves me – we’re both crying – Mari rolls her eyes.

Since I’ve been home I’ve been fortunate enough to skype with some of the family and quite a few of my students! Sounds like not much has changed, the family drama continues. The best way to describe my time in Georgia would be that it was intense. I feel so fortunate to have had a look into their lives and live as one of them for a short time.

Here is the recipe I jotted down for Bebia’s delicious Khajapuri. It’s present at every Georgian gathering and was almost always present at our dinner table. Absolutely delicious!

Georgian cheese bread

Dough(prepare at least 1-2 hours before you would like to bake the bread):
5-6 cups of flour bebia’s palm full of yeast (~ 1 tbsp)
3 tbsp melted butter
bebia’s palm full of salt ( ~ 1 tbsp)
light cooking oil

In a large mixing bowl combine flour and salt. In a small tea mug mix yeast with a dash of salt, sugar, small spoonful of flour mixture and add about ¼ cup of warm water. Mix well and let stand in a warm place(next to the wood burning stove is perfect) until it begins to bubble and rise. This will late about 15-20 minutes. Slowly add small spoonfuls of the flour mixture and more warm water to the tea mug and let stand until mixture rises to the top of the mug. This could take another 15-20 minutes.

To the flour mixture add yeast mixture, melted margarine, a sprinkle of oil, and room temp water (start with about ¾ cup and start to knead add more until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. Bebia just poured straight out of the pitcher until dough was completely combined but still quite firm). Knead dough for 2-3 minutes then make a clean ball, sprinkle with flour, cover and let stand for 1-2 hours.

~2-3 cups of paya’s cheese broken up into small chunks
*A soft mild cheese like mozzarella works really well in place of Bebias freshly made cheese. Just make sure you buy the soft balls of mozzarella (NOT shredded) and then break them up. If you don’t have mozzarella you can try a mixture of other cheese you like. I’ve done a mixture of feta and shredded white cheddar that turned out really well.

Roll it out:
Bebia made your bread in two different forms: one big circular loaf and small individual diamond shaped. The former is more traditional and the latter is fun for when you want to throw in extra components to make them all a little different (ex: apple jam in half and cooked, seasoned potatoes in the other)

Preheat oven to 500 degrees F with rack in the middle.

To make the large circular loaf (this recipe will make 2-3) tear off a large fist full of dough and roll it out into a circle about 8 inches in diameter and ¼ inch thick. Then place a large fist full of cheese right in the center and spread it out leaving about a ½ inch border. Now gather ends together bringing then up and over the cheese squeezing excess dough into a topknot. At this point it will resemble a very large Chinese dumpling. Finally press down or roll dough outward until it is about 12 inches in diameter. Now just poke a few holes, brush with egg and melted butter mixture and pop in the oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. If you’re feeling particularly guilt free go ahead and slather more butter on top as soon as it comes out of the oven. Don’t worry, bebia would insist.

Let cool slightly so you don’t lose all of your delicious cheese then cut it up like a pizza and enjoy in mass quantities with lots of hot tea and seasonal fruit. Tchame, tchame – Eat it all up!!!