When I was volunteering in the Republic of Georgia, I stayed with a host family in a tiny village three hours away from the big city. In fact, the closest next “town” was over an hour away and lays right smack on the Azerbaijan/Georgian border.
“This street Georgia, next street Azerbaijan!” my co-teacher proudly told me.
As my village used to be an Ossetian village, half of the houses were burnt down. You may remember in 2008 Russia invaded a little-known country called Georgia. I think my first reaction upon hearing that was “why are the Russians attacking the United States? And Georgia of all places?”.
Well, turns out they were attacking Georgia – the Republic of – to gain control of a region called South Ossetia (and another region called Abkhazia). My village was just outside of this (still occupied) zone. The Georgians in the village were afraid that the Russians would invade their area too, if there were Ossetians living there so they literally burnt their Ossetian neighbors houses to the ground.
What a great, welcoming story to hear upon arrival!
Never mind the fact that no one in my village spoke English, even my co-teachers could hardly understand me. And they were the ones supposedly teaching the kids English! I knew it was going to be a difficult semester.
Have you ever tried to learn a new language? I speak French fluently, and Spanish fairly well but Georgian was nowhere even close to either of those languages. In fact, the root of Georgian is…Georgian (Kartvelian). The only known similar languages are the ones spoken in the Caucasus Mountains. If you spoke Russian, you could at least communicate with most people – after all, Russia has been a huge influence on this area of the world. As for me, my French and Spanish got me nowhere. Georgian lessons it was.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning Georgian – the letters fascinate me and my attempts at the guttural noises were a source of laughter for many a Georgian. But I would be lying if I said it was easy. Now I know how those poor kids I taught felt.
It also made for some sticky situations. For example, I didn’t realize the extent of limited hot water at my host-house. So of course, one morning I wanted to shower before school. I came downstairs with all my washing needs, flicked the electric heater on and hopped in the (freezing cold) shower. After about 10 minutes of waiting, teeth chattering, I got dressed and went to ask my host father what was up with the water situation.
His English was limited to three things: “baby”, “sit down”, and “hello”.
I managed to get it across to him that the shower was freezing (repeating “me gaq’inva c’q’ali” while using spider fingers above my head to indicate shower – this roughly translates to “I freeze water” What? That’s the limited vocabulary I had to work with!) He finally managed to explain that it takes two hours to heat the water. TWO HOURS!
Needless to say, I did not get my shower that day. In fact, I wore more head scarves, headbands and ponytails in those few months than I have in my entire life. Showering was not a priority in the small villages. In fact, my house was one of the only ones that actually even had hot water.
There was also the problem of traffic jams. No, not of the vehicular kind. I’m talking cows, ox, goats, pigs, chickens – even a horse or two. Most of the animals just ran around doing as they pleased. It was not unusual, on my way to school, for me to pass a few pigs grazing in the street, while a horse trotted by, narrowly missing the flock of chickens stationed by a spewing water spout, while a man on a goat-driven cart shouted Georgian obscenities at the herd of cows blocking his route. And the problems that arose when more than one cart was on the dirt roads – vy may!
I learned a lot in those months; about Eastern Europe, about the Caucasus region, about culture shock, about learning, about friendship, about gutting rabbits and eating them for dinner (seriously), about traveling and, mostly, about adapting.
I mean, I was a vegetarian for like 10 years and I managed to eat an animal that I had seen alive earlier that day. If that’s not learning, I don’t know what is.