Thursday, April 24, 2008

I know, i suck at keeping my blog updated. But this time it's partly the fault of my computer for breaking, Georgian winter for being cold and bleak and boring, and my own admitted laziness. BUT, apparently the one thing that can get me to make the effort to write a blog entry is getting engaged! To be married to Ryan B. Nickum, a man most of you only know through his entertaining blog which is much funnier than mine.

The happy couple.

Our talks about the future have become more and more frequent over the past several months, and after finally meeting each other's parents and MOST of our siblings (minus Derek and Jen, but they'll get to meet him soon!), we just couldn't put it off any longer! All of our well-rehearsed talk of waiting until we've spent time together in the states, waiting to be absolutely sure, blah blah blah, suddenly seemed absurd because we've never been more certain about anything.

Ryan and I with my Georgian host parents, Gia and Ia.

So, we decided we'd get engaged Monday night, then on a cross-country bus ride Tuesday decided we'd get engaged REALLY soon, then decided Tuesday afternoon while ordering and picking up take-out Italian food in the capitol that we'd get engaged REALLY, REALLY soon, then told our parents Tuesday night and made it official on Wednesday. Pretty exciting!!!

Ryan is a really cool, fun, considerate, funny guy who I love very much and I know all of you back home will too. We'll be in Texas in August and you'll all get to meet him then. We have no clue about the when's and where's and how's of the wedding, but we'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

I’m kind of at a loss for words when trying to describe my trip to Paris for Christmas and New Year’s. Basically all I can say is that it was probably the best trip of my life, and Paris is an amazing place. And having a real apartment to stay in instead of at a hotel (thank you Kelly! Thank you Yves!) made the whole vacation even more special. It’ll likely be many months before Ryan and I can have a conversation without one of us saying, “If we were in Paris right now…” So here are some pictures and, of course, there are a lot more on my facebook page. Happy New Year!

After Christmas Eve mass at Notre Dame

The Christmas chair, a fine alternative to the Christmas tree.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I made this bag

Look at this bag. Isn't it nice? I MADE IT! Made it myself. Bare hands. Well, i did all of the stitching and then my host aunt made it into the bag you see here. I just wanted all of you back home to see how crafty I'm getting over here in Georgia. Especially my mom and MaSue, I just want to make you proud. But it took me 3 months to do so I probably won't make any more. I'll probably just stick to making bracelets. I'll just carry this bag around forever.

Lanchkhuti Language Concert, err, Competition

My school again hosted the Lanchkhuti Language Competition last weekend. Eighty-five students from all of the Lanchkhuti and surrounding village schools competed in English, French, German, and Russian. Ten PCVs came to help out and judge the English competition (except Heidi who judged German, which was apparently disastrously disorganized. Sorry Heidi.). Three age groups of kids competed first by writing on a topic and then in interviews. The competition went really smoothly and was a lot of fun. I didn’t judge so there would be no controversy over the winners, so I spent most of the morning shooing kids away from the interview room doors, or threatening them not to tell what was in the interview to their friends.

6th and 7th formers writing "themes" at the competition.

Announcing the winners of the competitions, one on which was my host sister Ana standing beside me.
The actual competition is great and all but, let’s be honest, that’s not really what it’s all about. It’s all about the concert afterwards!! We all sat waiting for over an hour for the concert to begin because (of course) we had no electricity and the generator wasn’t working. So we had to wait for someone to bring another generator—then it was showtime. There were a few Georgian songs and dances, but the concert was mostly in English. There was “Let It Be”, “Everything I Do I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams (don’t pretend not to know the words), “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, and some obscure and recent Diana Ross song called “Everytime You Touch Me I Become A Hero” (whatever that means), sung by an 11 year old. But sung quite well.

5th form girls singing "Jingle Bells," Georgia's one Christmas song.
The grand finale though, before the power went out again and everyone just gave up, was a dance solo by an 8 year old. Not a Georgian dance though. The best name I can think of for it is a dirty cheerleader dance. In my shocked counterpart’s words, “it was not very proper.” There was lots of booty shaking and thrusting and rolling and even a short stint on the floor. It was kind of horrifying. I had to assure my director who came (and brought awesome prizes for the kids) that I have not been spending my time here teaching dirty dancing to 8 year old girls. Other than that, everything went great!

A riveting short performance of "The Prince And the Pauper."
As most of you know I’m leaving for Paris in a few days! I’m so excited and feel so blessed that I get to be there for Christmas and New Year’s. And though I know that no one will believe this, I still wish I were going home for the holidays. But since I can’t be home, Paris is a PRETTY GOOD alternative! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year’s to everyone back home, can’t wait to tell you all about Paris!

Lyssa&Paige's Crispy Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars

One and a half years into my service, living in Georgia has simply become the norm. Things that would’ve shocked or bewildered me eighteen months ago have ceased to shock or bewilder me. The same goes for homesickness. While I still certainly miss my family members, friends, and home, I just think about my homesickness less than I did when I first arrived.
But around the holidays that changes a little bit. This holiday season, just like last year, there was a sharp spike in my homesickness line graph. And of course this year we had the added stress and frustration of being on a standfast (not being able to leave our sites because of the political situation) for several weeks before Thanksgiving. So when Thanksgiving actually came, I was with my host family at a wedding in my host mother’s hometown of Akhaltsikhe, not at dinner in Tbilisi with my friends. So that was a little depressing, though my thoughtful friends did call toast to me (we’ve become so Georgian) and say happy thanksgiving. And I got to have long conversations with my parents who called, so that helped a lot too. It also helped that my host aunt is a really good cook and has a heated house.
But the next weekend we had our Peace Corps Thanksgiving on the last day of our safety and security conference. We were the only guests at this newly renovated lakeside tourist compound in Bazaleti, north of Tbilisi. The hotel staff was kind and patient enough to let us invade their kitchen to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. It was quite a meal too. Our director secured turkeys and hams for us, and got ahold of some canned pumpkin so I could make pumpkin pie.

Lyssa and I just getting started on the pie, with Amy looking on.
(Just to warn you, the rest of this entry will be exclusively about the pumpkin pie…)
I really outdid myself at Thanksgiving last year, I must say. I made a delicious pumpkin cheesecake that was quite a hit, although some people took really big pieces and there wasn’t enough to go around. I barely got a piece of it myself, but the very thoughtful G5 Wendy Woods snatched one for me. Some people were expecting pumpkin cheesecake again this year but, since I wasn’t cooking at an expat’s house with a drop bottom pan and I couldn’t find cream cheese, it wasn’t possible. So I volunteered to make pumpkin pie instead. That’s when things started to go wrong. A certain other volunteer (RYAN BRINKLEY NICKUM) already mentioned this mishap on his blog, but I’ll tell my own account here.
First, I didn’t think to buy pie pans before we left Tbilisi. So I had to make four pies in one on a big sheet pan, which was fine, we just had to rename them Pumpkin Pie Bars. I should mention here that Lyssa Haldeman volunteered to be my sous chef, and did a splendid job.
So I’m starting on the crust, Lyssa’s uncanning the pumpkin, and I’m not sure exactly what happened next. Somebody ground the cloves for us and had them in a bowl. Somebody else thought that the bowl of cloves was ALL OF THE SPICES (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves) mixed together, and tossed it into the pumpkin pie filling. That’s THE WHOLE bottle of cloves. When the error was realized, we quickly added more cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pumpkin spice to try and cover the clove taste. It helped…a little. Cloves are quite strongly flavored, you know. But they weren’t bad just…spicy. Thus the second renaming of our dessert, “Lyssa and Paige’s Pumpkin Spice Bars.” Then Catherine told us she had some leftover pecans and said we could use them to further distract from the cloves. So Lyssa and I sprinkled pecans over the top of the dessert. Hence the third name, “Lyssa and Paige’s Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars.”

Nicholas trying not to look horrified by what we've done to the pie thus far.
Then just as we were about to put it in the oven, I realized that I’d forgotten to grease the pan. Oops. At this point, it only seemed rational. Lyssa and I left the crowded kitchen a bit flustered, and other volunteers said they’d bake it for us. But, in the natural order of things, about a third of the pie got burned. When the volunteer apologized I told her not to worry because that was about the least offensive thing that happened to that poor pie that day. So in its final incarnation, it was “Lyssa and Paige’s Crispy Pumpkin Pecan Spice Bars.” And you know what? They weren’t bad.

Lake Bazaleti at sunset.
(All pictures courtesy of Julien Katchinoff)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Wine Weekend!!!

If you know even the first thing about Georgia, you know that Georgians like wine. A lot. And that most Georgian families in the grape-producing regions have their own little vineyards and make homemade wine each fall. Sometimes that homemade wine is very good; sometimes it tastes like…well, less than good. Regardless, it sure is fun to make! Which I found out last weekend when Ryan’s host family showed me how Georgians make wine. Or at least how they do it in Dimi.

Ryan Nickum returning from a long day in the fields. Sporting capri pants. It's okay though, he's a vintner.

Ryan and I with Omari with the wine press.

The obvious first step is to harvest the grapes. I missed out on most of this unfortunately, but I got to cut a few vines. So, we cut the grapes, threw the nice, plump ones in a bucket but chucked the rotten, raisin-like ones. Right? Wrong. Even the dry and shriveled ones are not to be wasted. Once the vines are bare, divide the grapes into red and white and get ready for the next step: crushing.

Crushing grapes by hand!
I admit that I had a naïve notion that I’d get to stomp grapes with my feet. But no, I guess that takes way too long and would probably result in even funkier-tasting wine. So instead, we crushed them with this homemade contraption shown below, made by Ryan’s host father Omari, a real wine-enthusiast (well, a Georgian wine enthusiast. When he tried Greek wine we’d received as a gift in Greece, he took a sip and then left the room in disgust).

Ryan host parents Omari and Lela and the grape-crushing machine.

You probably think that before we crushed the grapes, we washed them and removed things such as stems and leaves and spiders from the bunch. Wrong again! All that stuff is fine, really. Because when the fermentation process begins, all of those germs and stuff just die. Like how boiling water kills parasites. Right?

After taking a spin through the crushing machine, it’s time for the press. This is the longest part of the process. Once the juice starts pouring out, it’s time to transport it to a big blue plastic barrel, as I am doing here.

Sometimes, before we start the press, we get to use this big caveman club to squish the grapes. I didn’t really see the point, but it was really fun to use.

Ryan and the beloved wine press.
Next we poured wine into these thick glass barrels, where it will sit until siphened out for a supra.

The fruits of our labor. So proud.

The processes for making different varieties of whites and reds were slightly different, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Some of the red varieties were only crushed, not pressed, or then combined with a different grape and then pressed, etc. All I know is that making wine is fun and that I want to do it again.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It’s mid-October, which means that school’s been back in session for a month now. My school joined this year with two nearby schools, and the results so far have been slightly chaotic. By chaotic, I mean that my classroom has been broken into twice, one kid has been beaten up, and a kid spit spitballs at and harassed the Peace Corps Inspector General visiting my site, to my extreme mortification (don’t worry, he got his comeuppance). THAT SAID, I’m glad to be back working and teaching regularly (I am! Really!). My teachers have shown a lot more creativity in lesson planning so far this year, we’ve had some pretty interesting class discussions already about the future of Georgia, and my 11th formers even wrote some pretty good haikus.
You may (or may not) be wondering how, after my adventures with the nuns, I spent the rest of my summer. So here was my summer, in pictures…

I was lucky enough to be invited to GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp for one night. As you may have guessed, it’s a leadership camp for teenage girls, and it’s been a big success in Georgia. I got to paint thank-you notes to donors, witness a talent show, read year-old Vogues, and dance awkwardly at the discotechi! It was fun!

The GLOW girls and the "Thank You Donors!" banner.
I spent a really fun weekend in Batumi with Ryan, Lyssa, Seth, Nicholas, and two of Nicholas’ friends visiting from the states. We narrowly escaped sure-doom at the scariest hotel (hopefully) to ever be suggested in Lonely Planet, but other than that it was a great weekend.

The beach at Sarpi, right on the Turkish border. It's the cleanest, most beautiful beach in Georgia.

Sarpi, again.

Sure, we got some strange looks from the little kids on the choo-choo, but who says a group of 20-somethings can't ride the kiddie train?

On the Batumi ferris wheel, in one last futile attempt at taking a nice picture together. As you can see, it didn't work out.

SELF Camp (formerly known as Girl’s Sports Camp)
I was a counselor at another girls’ summer camp, SELF (Self Esteem and Leadership through Sports) camp, for 4 days in the Black Sea coast town of Kobuleti. We taught all kinds of fun exercises and sports, as well as healthy eating/lifestyle type stuff. There were AWESOME guest speakers, some female doctors and a woman who plays soccer for the Georgian national team and has played all over Europe (first question the girls asked? “Are you married?” GRRR!). It was a really successful, smooth camp and more exercise in those 4 days than I’ve had in the past year in Georgia.

Morning exercises on the beach. Don't they look thrilled?

Some forced post-soccer game sportsmanship.

Kazbegi is a village in the mountain regions north of Tbilisi, and one of the biggest tourist draws in Georgia. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The church and Mt. Kazbek

Mt. Kazbek and the village below.

The church and me. The cars in the background kinda ruin the "ancient church and village nestled in the mountains" scene though.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

(Host) Family Vacation

Lanchkhuti, my small town, isn’t too bad during the school year. I have lots of work, students, and things to occupy my time. In the summertime, however, I have considerably less to do in my site. To make matters worse, my two host sisters have been out of town staying with family since early July. They are very entertaining girls and so their absence only adds to my boredom. The DVD drive on my computer decided to stop working recently so I can’t watch movies either. The long, hot, humid (being from Texas, I know humid, but it’s just ridiculous here, 20 miles from the Black Sea), mosquito-rich summer days in the Lanch are passed largely by reading lots of books, writing a textbook, text messaging friends, and my poor attempts at cross-stitch. However, I was granted a reprieve when my bosses here allowed me to spend a few weeks with my host sisters and extended host family in and near the town of Akhaltsikhe.
Akhaltsikhe (“New Castle” in Georgian) is a where my host mother is from and where her two sisters and mother live still. It’s in southern Georgia, about 20 kilometers from Turkey, and it’s thankfully a little cooler there. The area looks very different than most of Georgia, so it was fun to see a new part of the country. My host aunt Natalia picked me up from the station and we zipped around town in her little car. She’s a nun and she speaks a lot of English. I’ve never spent time with a nun in the states, I don’t think I’ve ever even met one actually. But I spent lots of time with the nuns of Akhaltsikhe. More on that later.

I was a little apprehensive about staying with people I don’t know very well, I’d only briefly met my host mother’s sisters and never met her mother. But they are all very warm, welcoming people and I felt right at home. Within an hour of my arrival, they’d already dressed me in a traditional Georgian dance costume…

They also gave me that grand tour of the region. Natalia took the kids and I to a nearby monastery called Sapara, built in the 10th century (I think, 13th at the latest). It’s a beautiful monastery in the mountains that’s almost hidden in the surrounding forest. The monastery consists of lots of little churches, castle ruins, and, like most monasteries here, has healing water running on tap. I drank just a little and I feel great!

Next I went to stay at my family’s “house” in the nearby resort village Abastumani. It’s much cooler in this heavily wooded, shady village up in the mountains. It used to be a big resort town in Soviet days with lots of Russian visitors because there’s “good air” there and it’s cool and pretty. I was looking forward to hanging out with my host siblings and cousins, reading, and working in a much cooler environment at my family’s “house.” However, the “house” was actually one room smaller than my bedroom with three beds, a cot, and a broken refrigerator. I panicked a bit when I saw this, knowing it was where I’d be spending my time and sleeping with my two host sisters, two host cousins, and grandmother.

The grandmother, a very nice woman, never stopped speaking to me in Russian no matter how many times people told her I don’t speak Russian. We also shared an outhouse with the rest of the 100 year-old apartment building and a small tap in the center of the yard was our only running water. This meant that I had to brush my teeth and wash my face while my neighbors watched me and talked about me, the American girl. The neighbor women were all very, very nice. But they did squeeze my cheeks and touch me excessively, as well as tell me about all their handsome, smart, English-speaking sons, grandsons, and nephews (my host grandmother quickly let them know that I have a shekvarebuli, a “sweetheart,” and I love her for that). In the end it was fine, of course, I just had to pretend to be Georgian, not American, and therefore have no need for privacy. We passed the time slowly but pleasantly; we ate, walked in the woods, ate, read, ate, listened to music, ate, went to the park, then ate some more. Everyone sleeps there in the afternoons then goes to the park in the evening. There’s a brand-new fountain, as there are in many parts of Georgia, and everyone congregates there at night to look at each other, talk about each other, and pretend not to notice each other. I’m mostly talking about the teenage community of course. Each night around 9:00, the girls would spend half an hour changing outfits and hairstyles then go sit in the park for an hour and not talk to anyone, especially the boys who tried to talk to them. It was interesting for me though to witness this Georgian version of co-ed summer camp or something.

So, back to the nuns. Natalia wanted me to stay with her one night, so I did; I stayed at the nuns’ house, the residentsia, one night. There are nine women there, four nuns and five nuns-in-training. They were all very kind to me and seemed to enjoy having me as their guest. I’ve always imagined nuns as very solemn, stern women; but these nuns were just the opposite. They laughed and teased each other constantly, even played little pranks on each other. After their busy chores during the day (gardening, embroidery, cooking, etc.), we ate ice cream, played with the dogs (they have a huge German shepard), and listened to the music on their cell phones. It was a really pleasant place and I really enjoyed being there, for one night of course. At midnight, we were all still hanging out and I was the first to go to sleep. I could still hear them laughing and talking as I went to sleep in my tiny little room.

The next morning I went on an “excursion” to another monastery with Natalia, two other nuns, and their bishop Teodor meope (“Lord Theadore”), who always laughs at me when I speak Georgian and pasts me on the head like I’m six years old. Teodor meope drove us in his Land Cruiser to Tchulevi, a quite isolated monastery near Turkey. We drove through a few Muslim villages on our way there. The monastery was beautiful, as they all are, and we spent the entire afternoon there.

There’s a waterfall nearby where the nuns and bishop took their shoes off and played around and splashed each other. Afterwards we ate tons of delicious fruit, fresh bread, and the best honey I’ve ever had straight from the comb. At the end of the day, alas, my time with the nuns was over and I returned to Abastumani and my host sisters.

The grand finale of my family vacation was Vardzia, the 11th century cave city near Akhaltsikhe. I’ve wanted to go there since before I came to Georgia, so I was thrilled when my host uncle said he’d take the kids and me. It was pretty awesome. Vardzia is just tons of little caves and tunnels going back into the mountain, where the Georgian’s there lived for protection from various invaders. We walked through dark tunnels and narrow staircases, hoping to avoid bats. I’m a sucker for secret passageways and such, so I thought it was really cool.

So that was my little family vacation.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Back In The Georgia

So, after a few magical weeks in America the Beautiful, I’m back in Georgia (which is also beautiful). My time at home was all good family, good friends, good food, good times. My brother’s wedding and all of the festivities that went along with it were so fun, and seeing my family members transform into party animals for the weekend was highly entertaining. But of course my visit was all too brief, and passed by too quickly, and I find myself back in the Georgian life already. It was incredible to see everyone while I was home, literally my WHOLE family, and thanks to everyone for their well wishes and words of support. And, I apologize again for never updating this blog, didn’t realize so many of you folks were reading it! I’ll try to update more regularly, when especially important/bizarre/exciting things happen to me over here, although I get the feeling all of you back home think that my life is much for intriguing than it actually is…
One part of my trip that was decidedly NOT pleasant was my air travel. Before this experience, I was a very naïve traveler. I’d never had a flight canceled or delayed and never had any lost luggage. However, all of these unfortunate incidents happened to me at least once during my travel to and back from America. My faith and trust in air travel has been severely bruised. Have you ever seen that poor girl sleeping on the cold, concrete floor, using her backpack as a pillow and a t-shirt as a blanket? That was me. Or the crazy, cell phone-less traveler tearfully cursing a pay phone because the phone card she bought isn’t working? Right here. What about that immodest girl washing her arms and legs with dispensable hand soap in the airport bathroom because she’s been trapped in airports for almost 3 days? Sadly, yes. I was a pitiful sight. However, after four separate flights (not one of which took off on time), two lost bags, and three sleepless nights, I eventually made it back to Georgia in one piece. A cranky, delirious, on-the-brink-of-insanity piece, but one piece nonetheless. Phew.
Now, some lovely photos.

My dad sporting a traditional Georgian wool hat from Svaneti, the 60-year-old drinking horns my Georgian host father sent as a gift, and some old Soviet medals that I bought him a the Dry Bridge bazaar in Tbilisi. Looks quite fetching.

Who are these lovely girls? Why, they are Kelli Denise Blair and Erin Lee Burrows. And they are quite lovely, even though they constantly lie about wanting to come visit me in Georgia.

The triumphant Mr. and Mrs. Derek and Jennifer Weldon! A very handsome couple. The wedding was not only beautiful but lots of fun, and I'm so happy I was a part of it. You can't tell in this picture, but they were very happy and thrilled to be married.

The newly expanded Weldon family: Jennifer, Derek, Dad, Mom, me, and Brady. Despite the heat and humidity, I think we clean up pretty nice.

My cousin Jodie's daughter Hannah's 8th birthday party at the skating rink. Everyone skated except me, including my parents and Aunt Karen and Uncle Joe. Pictured are some of my little cousins, Taylor and Hunter, and my cousins' kids, Hannah, Hudson, and Nolan. They're digging into a Baskin Robbins' Mint Chocolate Chip Ice-Cream cake...Yum.

MaSue and Pop, on the porch swing in front of their house on Father's Day. But as far as I'm concerned it was Paige's Day because MaSue made one of my favorite things on Earth, her blackberry cobbler with BlueBell vanilla ice-cream.

My brother and his wife now live in New Orleans, so we hung out with them down there for a few days. We're taking a break from meandering around the French Quarter, cooling off with some frozen daquiries. Each daquiri came with a free shot. Needless to say, taking a shot at 2 in the afternoon with my parents was a first. 16-year-old Brady, of course, is sipping a virgin strawberry daquiri. Someday Brady, someday.

My host family, sporting some gifts I brought back from the U.S. They were so excited and it was so fun to give them stuff, it was like Christmas. They were especially fond of the cake mixes and amazed at how easy to make and delicious they are. My host mother was exasperated to learn that there is an easier way to make cake than spending 3 hours slaving away in the kitchen.