07 July 2016

Westward Ho: Tbilisi to Chicago

Fortunately, in mid-June, just when the Tbilisi Transport Company fired up its ovens on buses and in metro stations, I headed north, way north, to the West.

The metro in Tbilisi moves fast enough between stations to prevent sweat from sliding down into my eyes - as long as I am sitting towards the back of the car and catching a draft from the street-sign-sized windows. The best spot, though, except for anemic and claustrophobic riders, is standing in front of a pair of doors because, as long as the train is moving, air is rushing in between the rubber molding at 45-to-50 kilometers per hour.

The metro stations are impermeable bunkers of thick body heat. My undershirts stick to my back by the time I tap my fare card and knee the turnstile. The only respite comes when trains approach the platforms and whip up a bit of the stale air.

The buses, though, are so hot I bet you can fry an egg on any seat. They move slower than the train and stop more often - for passengers as well as traffic. The only relatively comfortable seat is all the way in the back, on the driver's side, where a street-sign-sized window opens. I am tall enough that I can sit with my face right in front of the window to get a decent breeze when the bus is in motion. 

It was refreshing, then, to say the least, as Tbilisi heated up, to meander about northeastern Europe for three weeks where I 1) visited with a Korean university professor and two Latvian English teachers whom I hadn't seen since 2009, 2) attended a graduation ceremony at the Tapa high school I had taught at from 2006 to 2009, 3) saw one of my former students and her family whom I had missed when I passed through Helsinki in 2013, and 4) spent a week in northeastern Iceland with an American I had hired to replace me in Tapa. Along the way, I ate a mūka mielasts, walked through Patarei vangla and the Avinurme tünnilaat, got sun-burned on Hietarannan, and slept in a plastic pod on the coast of the Norwegian Sea. The temperature dropped from 74 degrees during the day in Tbilisi to 43 degrees at night in Thorshofn. 


Tbilisi > Riga: 2,891 miles via Air Baltic
It was a rather comfortable, pre-dawn flight back to the West, the EU, the euro zone, and Schengen. Walking the streets of central Riga around Bastejkalna parks, I kept thinking I was in a rich Scandinavian country. The four-hour flight wasn't long enough, though, for me to forget crossing Khizanishvili Street in Gldani one lane at a time.  

Riga > Tallinn: 192 miles via Lux Exp
Back in the day (or in present-day Georgia), the four-hour coach trip, albeit on a two-lane highway, would have taken just two hours. I think the driver went the speed limit, at best, the entire time. Yet he left a woman behind in Pärnu who had alighted to buy some snacks.
Tallinn > Helsinki: 52 miles on the Superstar
I successfully connected to the free wifi in the Tallinn terminal, wheeled about 30 kilos of luggage up to and down from the top deck of the ship, bought a single-ride ticket from a machine outside the Helsinki terminal, and took the #9 tram to my hotel across from the rautatiesema.

Helsinki > Reykjavik: 2,074 miles on Iceland Air
The Finnair bus to Vantaa left as scheduled, had free wifi, broadcasted the route on monitors with our current location noted, and posted estimated arrival times to each terminal.

Reykjavik > Thorshofn > Reykjavik: 785 miles

Reykjavik > Chicago: 4,756 miles on Iceland Air

In September 2015, my flight from Chicago to Tbilisi through Vienna was about 6,800 miles. This summer, my trip back to Chicago on planes, a coach, trains, and a ship was almost 11,000 miles.

22 May 2016

American French Georgian French Toast

After the Orthodox New Year and Epiphany in January, I had begun the case for extending my six-month assignment with the Tbilisi Urban Area Development Program at World Vision Georgia into a nine-month gig to maintain continuity. The students started the school year with me, so why wouldn't they finish with me? Right? It took a five-page request with a letter of support to convince the Peace Corps.

In May, then, under unreachable blue skies instead of four low-hanging light bulbs, surrounded by timid fir trees instead of chipped walls of lackluster colors, in the school's neglected athletic field that bore flowering weeds for handmade head wreaths, my Wednesday afternoon class and I played bomba, balibuli, and es burti es burti, that is, in English, monkey in the middle, dodge ball, and spud, respectively. We also played a few innings of baseball and several rounds of G-rated spin the bottle and truth or dare on warped bleachers baring rusty nails.

My black dress shoes, clinical obesity, and AARP-qualifying age put me at a slight competitive disadvantage against 10-to-12 year olds, but I was more engaged (and, subsequently, breathing more heavily) than the P.E. teachers who came out with their classes and sat on a rock.

Spud - I had not heard it or seen it for more than 40 years, let alone played it. Did it come from Georgia? How did it get to Temka? I wondered exactly the same thing when, one evening, my host grandmother served "French toast", or, well, sliced bread dipped in egg yolks and fried on both sides. Should we be calling it "Georgian toast"? Back in 1998 in Tartu, Estonia, my host father fried sliced bread in the grease left in a pan sitting on top of the stove. (He also boiled day-old coffee for breakfast.)  

Who first lathered fried bread with butter and then poured corn syrup on it? Or, perhaps more importantly, why do we make fried bread so sweet? Does every American eat "French toast" for breakfast? The beauty of living in another culture is contemplating that neither we Americans nor French ever invented French toast but that we borrowed what existed and adapted it to our (sweet) tastes and resources (inexpensive high fructose corn syrup). 

14 February 2016

Being o'er My Head

The Avlabari quarter is just across the river from Old Tbilisi. It's the next stop on the metro after Freedom Square, and its underground platform greets riders with a smell of rotten eggs (eeewww!) from the nearby sulfur baths (ooohhh).

The approach to Old Tbilisi from Avlabari, walking down "Wine Rise" at a perilous 30 degree angle towards King Vakhtang, offers more money shots, both at night and during the day, than the tree-capped view coming down from the Dunkin' Donuts on Freedom Square.

Avlabari is Tbilisi's La Rive Gauche, home to the glass-domed Presidential Palace, the gold-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral, and a mom-and-pop convenience store where I used English, Russian, and Georgian to purchase homemade red wine in a re-used, two-liter, plastic soda bottle that came from under the counter.

It's also noted for its wooden and wrought iron balconies, which I had fun taking pictures of one Sunday morning.


Now is the time for all good men


31 December 2015

Signs of Something Big

Wednesday, on my way home from work, I stopped at my neighborhood's friendly tone for my customary purchase of two loaves of puri. I put my one lari coin down on the glass service window and confirmed visually and vocally that I wanted two loaves, each 50 tetri. An older gentleman, whom I believed I had not seen in the shop before, told me that I could get only one loaf for a lari. The younger baker, with whom I had exchanged a few Georgian and English words previously, came out from behind the toni to show me that they were baking loaves twice the size they normally bake. I let out an admiring "Whoa", dug into my pocket for another lari, and proudly carried off two loaves of bread the size of snow shoes. It was December 30.

On Tuesday, the day before, a colleague drove me home from work. We took the same road I take to get to one of the schools I have lessons in, a road a bit off the beaten path, I'd say, a good walk from the metro station, with a few shops that look like they sell goods in bulk. Tuesday night, however, both sides of this street were lined with tables with chunks of raw meat on top and men with black beards, leather jackets, and axes behind. Today, Gio, my host brother, took me back to ground zero on foot. There was still lots of really red meat but, curiously, no pools, or jars, of blood.  

Monday evening, walking home from the metro station, near Bingo Bridge, where old men and women sell fresh produce throughout the year, I unexpectedly passed a table of red meat with a calf's head sitting on top, eyes still in it. These are all Georgian signs that New Year's is coming.

I have always thought that New Year's comes too soon after Christmas to be a major celebration. Here in Georgia, though, where 84% of the population are Orthodox Christians (according to the CIA's World Factbook), New Year's comes before Christmas. After watching four or five continents celebrate Christmas December 25, Georgians are ready to celebrate come December 31.

Four years ago, on a wet December 30 made for tea-drinking, Cindy and I met Tiit and Lairi on Baker Street in London, and on December 31, the four of us stood in the middle of Waterloo Bridge with two bottles of sparkling wine and watched the fireworks from the London Eye. Sixteen years ago (when Walgreens was developing the photos I took with a cardboard camera), I 
stood in Senate Square in Helsinki and welcomed the twenty-first century eight hours before my friends and family in Illinois. I still vividly remember adults holding Roman candles, as long as rolls of wrapping paper, in their hands and a little too close to my head. Even more frightening were the teenagers on the streets holding bottles of beer and vodka. I grew up many, many years ago launching skinny rockets from a glass soda bottle in the middle of Queensway Road and staining the sidewalk in front of 2304 with charcoal snakes. 

Just as loud, glittering fireworks, exploding high in the sky, launch the New Year, so, too, does a smorgasbord of homemade dishes crammed lovingly onto the kitchen table by Gio's grandmother.

Up front, to the right of the bottle of Coke Zero, which is omnipresent the world over, is a cold plate of pkhali, that is, minced spinach with garlic (and sometimes pomegranate seeds or chopped walnuts, depending on the season). To the right of the juice carton is a cold plate of pickled sundry garden leaves and stems. They may have been flavoring a jar of pickled green tomatoes. (First okra in Kurdistan and now green tomatoes in the Republic of Georgia. I thought they both came from Mississippi.) 

Directly above the stems are pieces of churchkhela in a bowl, which is a string of walnuts dipped repeatedly in a grape paste. Reportedly, soldiers carried them into battlefields for quick bursts of energy. Just on the other side of the wire cage from a bottle of sparkling Georgian wine is some of the pizza Gio and I made from scratch earlier in the day. Above the pizza is pea salad with dill, just like the teachers in Estonia made. On the plate to the left (as well as behind the Coke bottle) is khachapuri, the Georgian cheese bread that children eat as they walk home from school with their mothers or grandparents.

On the plate back against the wall, shaped like diamonds, is the holiday favorite gozinaki, which is incredibly delicious for just being nuts, honey, and a bit of sugar rolled out. Next to the bottle of rose sparkling wine is, I believe, a bowl of satsivi, which is almost like an Indian sauce. Utskho suneli, translated as "blue fenugreek", is a uniquely Georgian spice in satsivi that I will no doubt have to introduce to Tapa, Estonia and Springfield, Illinois.

So, indeed, New Year's is something big in Georgia. New New Year's, that is. January 14 is Old New Year's, or Orthodox New Year's. (It's that Julian and Gregorian calendar thing come to life.) Let's hope there's more gozinaki and fewer calves' heads. 

01 December 2015

My Many Faces in Istanbul


Istanbul, my London
of the East, was just over two hours from Tbilisi by way of the unexpectedly refined Turkish Airlines. The somewhat Far East-themed Manesol Boutique hotel had a fantastic breakfast buffet that included figs and a lovely terrace at the end of our corridor that offered a peak at the Rustem Pasha Mosque. I think; mosques viewed upclose in the daylight and seen illuminated at night from afar seemed magically like different places.


Istanbul, like London, moved. Its people walked resolvedly along Siraselviler Avenue, and its metro, trams, and buses appeared frequently from the Bosphorus Bridge in the northeast to Ataturk Airport in the southwest. I was unexpectedly smitten.


First row above: Rukiya's left eye; my Irish nose, not shaped quite good enough to be a Turkish one; and Rita's smiling face sans eyeglasses on a random park bench overlooking John F. Kennedy Avenue. 
Second row: Rita and I are under the enormous chandelier under the even more enormous dome of the cavernous Hagia Sophia.
Third row: (l) I am standing with my back to Asia, the Istanbul Strait, and the Bosphorus Bridge, right outside the Ortakoy mosque. (r) We are sitting at Murat Muhallebicisi in Karakoy, a cafe and bakery with kebabs, maybe with a 1920s look, and definitely with a creepy waiter.
Fourth row: I am getting my Turkish Oyster card at the funicular's Kabatas station.
Fifth row: (l) I was abandoned at the elegant Karakoy Lokantasi but only for as long as it took to smoke a fag on the nearby balcony. (m) When in Rome (or on Edgware Road in London).... (r) The screen, window, and wall are circa sixth century; I am circa the 1960s. 
Below:  Rita and I trying to record the powerful allure of Constantinople's waterfront and skyline.