by Jenny Turner, Greenheart Travel English Teacher in the Republic of Georgia
Strawberry season was a big deal around the Kenchashvili house long before the strawberries were even beginning to turn red. As soon as I heard that it was possible to get straight off the vine strawberries within the vicinity of my home, I was indirectly communicating to my family that they better not go on this adventure without me. For weeks, I adopted the Georgian form of communication and subtly inserted my love for strawberries, my love for working in gardens, my love for doing things to help the family, etc., into every day conversations. But, finally, the American in me won out, and in the most direct way possible, I made sure the family understood I wanted to pick some strawberries. So, when we had a day off school for WWII Victory Day, my family and I loaded up the van (at 6:45am) to head to the strawberry fields… or, so I thought.
When we got to boloze (which literally translates “at the end,” but actually means “the big field”), I clambered out of the van with excitement… a pretty mean feat for me at 7:30 in the morning with only one cup of Georgian coffee to boost my mood. I walked around the fields with host dad, as he proudly showed me the peach trees, the apple-peach trees, the potato plants, the bean plants, the cucumber plants, the onion plants, the tomato plants, etc., etc., etc. But, there was no sign of strawberries in sight… Finally, I asked “so, where are the strawberries.”
“What strawberries?” he responded. “We don’t have strawberries.”
It’s a good thing I don’t know how to say, “are you flipping kidding me!” in Georgian, because that’s probably what would have escaped my lips in that moment. “For weeks – literally, weeks –we have been talking about going to pick and eat strawberries “at the end,” and you choose this time to inform me that we don’t, in fact, have strawberries. Well, then what the heck are we doing here?” Those were my thoughts… what I actually said was “Does TsunTsula have strawberries?,” counting on my friend and neighbor to come through for me yet again.
“Nope. There are some wild strawberries over by their fields, but… we don’t actually grow them.”
Vai mai. Talk about shattering a girl’s hopes and dreams.
So, we trudge over to TsunTsula’s family’s “end” and pick the few wild strawberries that were there. I ate my fair share of quite delicious, very sweet little red berries, and then headed into the hut to figure out what we were going to do for the rest of the day. The plans included plowing the potato rows, doing something with the carrots, and weeding the onions and tomatoes. Great.
I spent the rest of the day crouched on the ground next to my host mom, pulling grass away from microscopic onion shoots. And, it was awesome.
That experience can pretty much sum up a lot of my time in Georgia… my life here has not been what I expected, and many things haven’t gone as planned. And, it’s wonderful. Sure, there are “are you flipping kidding me moments.” For the most part, though, these “are you flipping kidding me moments” aren’t because something is so bad and devastating… it’s because something is so good and surreal.
I didn’t expect to be in a village with practically no one who speaks English, and yet still be able to communicate. Living most of my life in another language, though, has become my new “normal.” Though Georgian grammar (not to mention the pronunciation of a few of the consonants) continues to escape my understanding, it’s become very natural (and very fun) for me to speak in Georgian.
I didn’t expect to be given bouquets of roses and buckets of strawberries on my walk home. Nor did I expect the village chief to be called every time a boy showed me too much attention. Being loved and protected by a village full of people, some who know nothing more about me than my name and my nationality, is an inexplicable phenomenon.
I didn’t expect to have two rambunctious host brothers that would wiggle their way into my heart. It only took a few days for my brothers and I to bond, but after a few months of bonding, it seems that they have fully placed me in the role of “big sister.” Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it makes me absolutely crazy. Children are raised so differently here, and there are some things that are still hard for me to accept, but I love the “little crazies.”
I didn’t expect to spend hours sitting next to a wood stove with three layers of clothes on, watching Spanish Soap Operas, and multiple newscasts. I didn’t really know what to expect for my “free time” in Georgia, and I certainly didn’t plan on being cold for four months straight, but those winter months hold some of my fondest memories. The slower, more limited, pace of life appealed to me more than I thought it would, and it was over a pechi that I really became a part of the neighborhood (and a part of the family).
I didn’t expect to sit on the porch in the fading light, with food cooking on a wood stove in the corner, munching on Alucha (unripened plum), and chatting with the neighbors. It’s hard to explain that moment, and why it matters to me so much, but… I think I will forever carry a picture of that moment in my head. It’s just such a different way of life, and yet, it works.
I didn’t expect to have two Georgian homes. In the winter, if I was home around 10am, my host mom and I would head over the neighbor’s to drink coffee. Then, if I was home around 2pm, it was time for round two. Now that it’s Summer, the habit hasn’t changed, only the location. If I am not sitting on my porch, I am sitting on Tsuntsula’s. And, I am just as comfortable (and welcome) there as I am here.
I didn’t expect to learn that just because you can speak English, doesn’t mean you can teach it. Teaching has been an extremely challenging experience for me, for many reasons. And yet, I drag myself to school every day to be met by students who love me just for showing up, and who are so enthusiastic to please me that they can barely stay in their seats or keep from shouting the answers at the top of their lungs.
I didn’t expect to walk to school next to mountains (and cows and chickens and donkeys and horse-drawn wagons) every day. Georgia is a beautiful, beautiful country, and each place I visit has some new surprise to offer. Georgians, though, don’t live in a beautiful bubble where they are unaffected by nature’s quirks or by the difficulty of a lack of technology. Big storms can knock out the power and water for days at a time, a “strong sun” and lack of breeze can make it unbearable to walk more than ten feet from the house. And yet, the people go on… they plow the fields behind a horse in the blazing heat, they build fires and boil water on the pechi when the power’s off, the water’s off, and the gas is gone. They use tools and methods that I have only read about in history books, and there are times when life is hard. But, they still manage to gather on the porch in the middle of the hot afternoon, peeling and eating the freshly picked peaches, and laughing.
I didn’t expect it to be hard to leave. My plane doesn’t pull out of the airport for over two weeks, but… the emotion of it all has been slowly washing over me for the past month. I didn’t expect to find my niche in Georgia, to become part of a family, and a community. But, I did. And, as much as I am looking forward to things like coffee shops, daily hot showers, central heat and air, consistently working plumbing, and of course seeing my friends and family, I feel like I have a “second life” here…. and it’s a pretty good life, too.
Before I came to Georgia, my friend encouraged me not think of this time as a “break” from my “real” life, and…. though she was right, there are times when the surrealism of my situation here makes it hard to realize that life is actually happening. There are still moments when I stop and think, “this can’t be real,” even after almost nine months. And, it doesn’t seem real that it’s coming to an end. I have gotten to experience some amazing things – things beyond all of my wildest expectations – and, I have come to love some incredible people.
I didn’t expect to have to figure out a way to intertwine what feels like two separate existences into one… but, that’s something I can deal with when I am back in the States. For now, I have to get ready to go to my Georgian dance lessons… another one of those surreal experiences that has become just one of the many reasons that I am glad my time in Georgia has not been what I expected.