Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bait and Switch

Did I mention I have a mouse in the house? I do, and he's named Erekle and he's absolutely darling/terrifying. He's the dearest, tiniest little guy, and I even started having dreams about a mouse friend who would crawl into the piano whenever he wanted to talk to me because it amplified his li'l voice.

I had a friend over the other evening, and when he started making a rustle in the plastic bags and I heard myself shouting "Erekle, behave yourself, we have company!" I knew I'd really stepped over some kind of line. Perhaps I simply need a roommate, but I seem to be running the risk of skipping directly over crazy-cat-lady and becoming a crazy mouse-lady. Which wasn't exactly sandwiched inbetween "ballerina" and "mommy" in my childhood list of things I wanted to be one day.

I can't bear to kill him, but I know he can't stick around. I suppose there's always the possibility that one can find humane traps here, but the absurd image of me trying to explain to some gruff and stubbly old merchant at the bazroba that "No, no! I don't want to kill it!" is enough to keep me from even trying. I'm not even an animal person, actually. I don't get all choked up about meat or fur, and I think hunters are perfectly fine people. It's just this stupid little rodent!

Oh, what to do. I've ordered Erekle's destruction, and I feel so Hitlery about it all. I called my landlady, reported the mouse, and asked her if she could please handle it when I'm in Istanbul next week. Making somebody else do my dirty work. Trying to sanitize mouse murder. Low and foul deeds. I wonder if it's too late for an injunction.

Did you catch that little bit about Istanbul? Right, so this tale was my rather macabre way of saying that I'm going to Istanbul on Saturday, to rendezvous for a week with my man, and it's going to be great. I briefly considered taking the bus direct from Tbilisi (35 hours, $40-something. no joke). Then I thought to take the night train to Batumi, marshrutka to the border with Turkey, taxi to Hopa, bus to Trabzon, then cheap flight from Trabzon to Istanbul. Also cheap, sounds like a pretty fun time, but the screw-up probability ratchets up with each leg of the journey so I just sucked it up and bought a plane ticket. I'll be back in early March. No parties while I'm gone, kids.

News to me

Forgive me if everybody already knew about this, but I just stumbled on Stanford University's free iTunes offerings (courtesy of my pal Laoser).

From their iTunes "store" you can download faculty lectures, author interviews, visiting lectures, recordings of panel discussions, etc. They need to add dates and short descriptions of the lectures (I'm pretty sure I'd like whatever "American Jesus" is about, but a little hint would be nice), but this is a pretty fantastic resource and may help wean me off my IV drip of NPR podcasts.

So far I've downloaded a couple Larry Diamond lectures on democracy and on the Iraq occupation, a discussion of race, class, and disaster in the wake of Katrina, Christopher Hitchens spluttering on about something-or-other, an interview with Michael Chabon, and I just got started. Good for Stanford for opening this up to the public, free of charge.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Stranger Danger

Forbes, a smidge late on the year-end list-making craze (did they have actual content in late December? Did nobody invite Forbes to any holiday parties?), has released a tantalizing list of the 14 Most Dangerous Destinations for 2006.

Their methodology compiles the country watch-lists from two risk-consultancy firms, and cross-references these with the U.S. State Department's Travel Warnings to come up with the Big Scary. Actually, I think they cross-referenced something with my Mother's subconscious because among other top-14 notables such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and other family-fun-time roving-death-squad getaways, we find, um, Georgia.

Now, you know me.

I'd love nothing more than to hoist high my martyr flag and carve a notch into my bedpost with my teeth because I'm so hardcore that I laugh in the face of unfathomable danger. But this is even beyond my powers of hyperbole. Georgia? My Georgia?

I can't imagine that a Travel Warning has been issued by the State Department for Georgia for at least a decade, since the civil war hostilities ceased. Yes, they warn against travel to the volatile separatist regions, but on a global scale, we're not exactly in Karachi, Dorothy. In fact, the State Department doesn't even allocate a danger pay allowance for Georgia, although it does for Serbia & Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzogovina in Europe.

I have lost my wallet, I guess, and have come to suspect a few erstwhile friends have attempted to assassinate me with vodka, but I don't think that quite passes the bar to put us into the car-bombing club.

At any rate, the Department of Tourism (which has, by the way, a surprisingly great site), is not going to be too keen on this latest honor. About two weeks ago I sat in on a focus group of expats that was meant to help the Tourism Department test-run a new marketing campaign. At one point, we were brainstorming new slogans to replace the horrific "Georgia - the flavour of magic wine." A few of my peers came up with some pretty catchy slogans, though I was much partial to somebody's "Georgia: Your Neighbors Haven't Been Here."

Still if Forbes has its way, we may have to opt for the motto that occurred to me when I was channeling Warren Zevon at the close of the session: "Georgia: Bring Lawyers Guns and Money."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I have seen the best minds of my generation

There are, in Georgia, plenty of young people with superlative educations and insightful thoughts and probing, eager, ravenous intellects.

These are not the young people in my U.S. History class.

Oh, didn't I mention? I've been somehow suckered into teaching a course on "history" to first-year students at a local university; a task for which (having once exclaimed indignantly at Pub Quiz "what do you mean Hubert Humphrey was never a president?!") I am singularly unqualified.

But it doesn't seem to matter all that much. The class is meant to be in English, the students are at about a 3rd grade reading level in English, and the chapter on World War I includes the following tidbit of historical trivia:
The first American soldiers, called Yankees, or Yanks, arrive in Paris on the Fourth of July, 1917. Looking wonderful in their new uniforms, they parade from the Tomb of the Emperor Napoleon to the Tomb of Lafayette. "Lafayette, we are here!" says the Yankee officer in charge. He says it in French and Paris goes wild. All of France falls in love with the young Americans.

"Students just got all this Soviet propaganda, this absolute nonsense, for their entire education!" steamed the Dean, who is easily the most ferociously anti-Russian, pro-American human I've met this side of Uncle Dan in Decatur, Texas. "I want them to see how much you love your country so that they will love it too!"

" want me to spread American propaganda instead?" I ask innocently.

"Why not?" roars back the dean. Boy pal, have you ever got the wrong gal.

Essentially, I'm teaching English through the medium of history, using a primer published in the U.S. and intended for ESL students. I'm there, see, not so much to spread my revisionist politically correct propaganda, as to let them practice their English with a native speaker. I have high hopes that, by the end of the semester, they'll all be saying "like," like, waaaay more often.

This is a fine thing in itself, and I'm happy to serve the cause of greater English proficiency in my small way. But as long as the class is ostensibly about history, I still feel obligated to put up a fight. Look, I probably shouldn't use this forum to mock my students but a) I'm not exactly up for tenure here; b) believe it or not, I mock gently with affection, because they're pretty dear kids; and c) they don't use the internet; I checked.

With my least-advanced class, we read a chapter on the beginnings of World War I. It goes like this, for your information: the Archduke of Austria-Hungary goes to Serbia. He is shot. Austria-Hungary is angry! They declare war on Serbia. Other countries have agreements with Serbia and Austria-Hungary, and soon all of Europe is fighting.

Okay, class. Let's review what we read. What started WWI?

Blank stares. Eternal, uncomfortable silence. They stare at me with the empty eyes of those who know they will win this face-off.

Alright, let's back up. Where is the Archduke Ferdinand from? Feel free to look back at the text.


No. What happened to the Archduke?

He got killed in Serbia in the war?

No, the war happened after he was killed. Okay, how about this. What did Austria-Hungary do when he was killed?

Blank stares.

Remember, a Serbian has just killed a member of Austria-Hungary's royal family. What do they do?

Blank stares.

What happens next? What starts?

Blank stares.

Okay. True or false, everyone: as a result, Austria-Hungary....invites Serbia to a party?

I felt very Alex Trebek on SNL Celebrity Jeopardy, minus my Sean Connery. At a loss, I just started talking and at some point, when my mind finally caught back up to my mouth, I realized that I was neck-deep in an extravagant retelling of the ever-loving Battle of the Alamo, and there was simply no turning back.

Now I'm coming to class more prepared. My more advanced class is up to the 60s, and so I brought in the text of JFK's Ich bin ein Berliner speech, along with the audio recording and photographs. It's a pretty simple speech and I delivered what I humbly consider a ravishingly interesting lecture on the Berlin Airlift and the construction of the Wall, and the big serious eyes of my students looked troubled indeed about poor Berlin, families torn asunder, a defended island of freedom on the front lines of the Cold War. Next time is good ol' MLK and his dream.

Other ideas as we forge boldly forward? Multimedia options especially welcome, as is thus far my only pedagogical trick for maintaining interest.

Friday, February 17, 2006

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Just a little insider tip your university's career services department doesn't want you to know:

Should you find yourself, one day, having a meeting with the head of (let's say) a rather important international agency, you should avoid saying, within the first five minutes of making the gentleman's acquaintance: "You look like a Klansman!"

(even if he is showing you a photo where he's modeling the latest in Hazmat gear for some presentation or other.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Things started going downhill when I noticed Zurab's finger was bleeding everywhere.

It was my last day in the derelict Old Town apartment, which was suddenly looking so sweet in the drowsy warm afternoon sunshine. In those prehistoric days during the gas crisis, there was only darkness and drafts leaking in through the crooked floorboards and the lopsided windows and doors. But this last day, the weather unseasonably conspired to show me what dreamy summer days I was foregoing by running away.

Has anybody come up with a name for that immutable law of nature in which your crap mysteriously multiplies when you aren't looking? I clearly recall boarding the plane for Tbilisi with two (admittedly quite large) suitcases. But somehow I now had half a living room full of boxes and bags and luggage chest-high.

Which is surely what Zurab was thinking when he showed up to help move me into the new place. Zurab, a friend twice-removed who doesn't speak a word of English other than "bye bye" and "no problem" but has a car and a heart of gold, had agreed to help a near-stranger haul her crap across town. He stepped into my living room and very effectively pantomimed "Holy crap, all this is yours?" I wanted to ask him if it he thought we could get it all in one trip, but this is well beyond my Georgian vocabluary, so I just apologized. "No problem," said Zurab, waving it off.

Zurab lunged for the first suitcase and it very nearly bested him. "Suzi!" he admonished. But he heaved it onto his shoulders, lumbered down the crooked stairway, and tried to mask how very hard he was breathing. When he came back up the stairs, that's when I noticed the blood. His finger was cut deeply and bleeding all over. He would wrap it in his handkerchief, and suck it in his mouth, but it just as quickly bubbled back up again, and my bandages were all packed. I wanted to ask him what happened, but I don't know the past tense in Georgian, so I could only ask him (the number one most useful phrase I have ever learned in this language): "what is going on?" "No problem!" he replied.

I felt I should say something. My guilt was compounding and multiplying like my luggage. I felt guilty that I didn't know him well and he was helping me move. I felt guilty that I had so much junk. I felt guilty that it was so heavy. I felt guilty that he'd just nearly severed his finger on who-knows-what. As Zurab shouldered the next bag-of-bricks I'd packed up, I finally thought of some kind of excuse to offer. He was grunting unhappily, two stairs down, when I tried to tell him lightheartedly: "Didi bodishi, Zurab. Magram, itsi, kali var!" Which is, roughly, "I'm very sorry, but you know, I'm a woman!" You know, we women, all our stuff! Ha ha! Well, it was worth a try.

But instead, what came out of my mouth was possibly the worst thing you can say to a Georgian man ever, especially one who is, at that given moment, bleeding profusely and gradually collapsing his lungs under the weight of your overpacked vanity. What I said was "...itsi, Zurab, kali khar."

"You know, Zurab, you're a woman."

Am so buying him vodka if I ever see him again.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Barbed Wire Fences Make Good Neighbors

The thing about being in fantastic locales is that somebody's always got a better story than you. The locals all have crazy tales and the foreigners tend to be the more adventurous sort, and while this can throw off your barometer for a good yarn, you simply have to admire when somebody can begin a story by saying, "Well, it's kind of a complicated and dodgy tale as to how I got there, but okay, suffice to say that for a number of reasons I happened to find myself in a small polyclinic in the outer regions of Afghanistan..."

I can never compete. There was the time when I stupidly complained about DC Police to a Turkmen girl, for example. And whenever I complain about not having hot water, a Peace Corps volunteer is always on-hand to give me tips on the finer points of ice-bathing for two months. Just today, I was whining to my Georgian teacher about the noisy neighbor kids, and she sledgehammered my complaint by pulling the Stalin card.

I guess when you live in the same apartment building as the grandson of a genocidal despot, you win the annoying-neighbor contest. She hadn't known he lived there, until she was waiting for the elevator one day and she saw Stalin walking towards her. He looks exactly like Stalin, she told me. He is a second Stalin. For effect, surely, he was for some reason wearing knee-high military boots and dress uniform. She turned pale and started shaking as he neared her. He put out his hands in a calming gesture and said: "Don't worry! I'm just his grandson."

This was years ago, and he no longer lives in the same building. Which is all well and good because Inga was just appointed head of their building association, and I don't envy whoever has to make second Stalin cough up the condo fees.

And Please Bring Your License as Proof of ID

Well, the positive spin is that at least, when I move back to DC, I won't have to worry about the culture shock of good governance:

From the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles:
If your driver's license has been lost or stolen, you can obtain a duplicate driver's license. The DMV makes obtaining a duplicate driver's license convenient by offering the service online or at a DMV service location.
Just proceed to the handy online form and enter in your driver's license number.


(And before any of you scold me because you have your license number memorized, and why don't I, let me just tell you that I made a deliberate decision to not populate the scarce vacant real estate in my skull with stupid numbers. Therefore, I still don't know my own mobile phone number. On the other hand, this decision came down after i moved from Texas, so I still pointlessly know that my TX license number was 03586865. So there.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Foiled Again

So, the most irritating part of being pickpocketed AGAIN, is not (as you might guess), the actual losing of the wallet. I mean, sure I could have used that $30, but I probably would have used it on beer and it's now probably going to vodka instead. And yeah, I lost some business cards I needed to keep track of, but everybody knows everybody here so it shouldn't be hard to recompile my contacts. And while it's really sad that I was still carrying around my UT Student ID for sentimental reasons, at least now the perp can get a student discount on Brokeback Mountain at his nearest participating megaplex.

And although this is a close runner-up, my friends aren't even the most irritating part. There's no denying, I have indeed been robbed of my phone, my camera, and now my wallet, so I can also enjoy a good laugh at "Hey Susan, can you hold my gloves real quick? Oh wait, nevermind, I don't want somebody to steal them." Ha ha, you bastards.

No! The most irritating part is Bank of America. There's that tense period of time, in between the discovery of theft and before you can get to a computer to check your account and look up phone numbers, when you imagine your poor little Visa groaning under the weight of all the new Sony TVs it is financing. It is a tense time. It is a race against commerce. And so, I was anxiously pounding the keyboard on a verrrry sloooow internet connection, trying desperately to access my account. Finally, code entered, the webpage creaks open. But wait! That's not my account!

Hello! chirped the internet. Before you can access your account, we need you to set up a new SITEKEY!

Are you kidding me? My Visa, in my mind, is currently importing half of Dubai. But okay, fine, what do I have to do?

Upon my screen flutters a photograph of a triangle of creamy brie, artfully ringed by fleshy grapes on a rustic wooden butcher's block.

Please name this photo! the internet helpfully instructs. Use a name you will remember, from 6-30 characters in length!

I have to name the cheese? I have to name the fucking cheese? My Visa is sending some leather-jacketed thug's extended family on holiday to Bali and I have to name the fucking cheese?

The cheese was duly named "fucking CHEESE" and we moved on, if you can believe, to the next section: Now it's time for a few challenge questions!

What is your mother's maiden name? Bite Me. Where did you go to highschool? Screw off. I post these here, you see, in case I forget my witty little ripostes.

Ten minutes later, on an international call to the bank, I wonder if Customer Service Representative Deborah heard me colorfully informing her electronic colleague that no, I in fact was not effing interested in a mother-effing two-minute survey. Because when she brightly squeaked "thanks for your patience, and how are you doing this morning?" I could tell she was just trying to piss me off.

You know, there's a girl that was around. From Wisconsin, blonde as sunshine, loud as a brass band, not a word of Georgian or Russian to her name, as obviously American as apple ever-loving pie, and nothing ever happened to her. Here I am, learning the language, dressing neutrally, watching my back, not speaking English in public, playing the part, and I am systematically stripped of my worldly possessions. My former Russian colleague, Irina, used to be convinced that Americans simply led charmed, dumb-luck existences. Maybe I ought to drop the Georgian incognito act and bust out the star-spangled fanny pack.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Imperial Syntax

The inimitable Gail has given us the last word in defense of our otherwise pretty indefensible aversion to the metric system.

And kilometres to go before I sleep.