Cuttino's Georgian Life

A journal of my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Georgia, 2006-2008.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Gilotsavt everyone, happy Thanksgiving! I’ve just wrapped up a really busy week here and I think it’s probably been the best seven days since I arrived in Georgia. Much to talk about, I’ll break up my anecdotes to keep things in a logical order. Also, check out my Flickr site; I’ve uploaded more pictures than you can shake a jokhi at (I've uploaded about 30 pics).

Tbilisi: "Paris of the Caucasus
Things started off last Wednesday when I traveled to the capital for the All-Volunteer Conference. The main purpose of this once-a-year gathering is for the Peace Corps to talk to us about safety and security issues. Basically, it’s a two day event to imagine all the various scenarios that would result in our evacuation. Last year, apparently it was bird flu; this year, its war with South Ossetia.

The conference was a lot of fun, despite all the gloom and doom in the sessions (and all the flip-chart drawings). I got a chance to catch up with all the volunteers that I haven’t seen since August. But most importantly, we got a chance to indulge in some foreign food. We discovered restaurants with Chinese food, Thai food, and a place called “The Hangar,” which is an Irish pub and sports bar. I realize that this may sound insignificant, but you have to remember that the two McDonalds in Tbilisi are the only American restaurants in the entire country. There are rumors of a new Mexican restaurant, I’ll have to investigate.

I also got to enjoy Tbilisi at night—this was the first time that I spent the night, and our hotel was on the main street. The city is surprisingly beautiful at dark; the powers-that-be have spent a lot of time and money strategically placing spotlights throughout town. There’s also a TV tower on a hilltop that you can see throughout the city. It’s been decked out with pulsating lights, like the Eiffel Tower. I think that it may cause seizures in children who stare at it too long.

On Saturday night, we all gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner at the hotel. Our director had ordered seven turkeys from America and each volunteer was assigned a dish to prepare (mine was corn). It was a full holiday spread—complete with stuffing, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. It amazed me how well things turned out, considering the lack of ingredients. I also took great pleasure in seeing the Georgian PC staff sample American food for a change. The approached the cranberry sauce with the same skepticism that we did with the cows’ tongue.

Back to High School
After the Peace Corps conference, I traveled up into the mountains to Bakuriani to help my organization with a high school leadership conference. For those of you who remember, I went to Bakuriani last summer during a break in the Pre-Service Training. This time, I stayed at a much nicer hotel and there was eight inches of snow on the ground. Two months ago, my NGO had announced a competition for the best students in Gori to join the “Leaders’ Network.” The idea was that Biliki would select one person from each school (they were all 14-15 years old), train them in leadership skills and help them form clubs and conduct service projects in their schools. In America, this kind of stuff is everywhere, and I remember how much of this was offered to me under the auspices of making my resume impressive to college admissions boards. However, here in Georgia, its fairly new and cutting-edge stuff.

My main responsibility at the conference was to present a lecture on volunteerism. During this, I realized that my presence was leading to a misconception among the students. When we were discussing the question of why someone would want to volunteer, all of their answers were basically: “So that they can travel and see the world!” Hmmm…I never realized that the life of a volunteer could be so glamorous. Fortunately, the training director caught on to this and guided the discussion into more realistic territory. Then I dropped the bomb: “You know, you can volunteer in your hometown—in Gori.” It was amazing what a revelation this was to them; it shows how new the concept of volunteering is in Georgia.

Team building games are we are playing "helium stick."

Watching the group come together was great fun. Every night we had a parti, where the students lead skits, contests and dancing. As the sole American, I had a place of honor in everything and all the girls wanted to dance with me. Lela, one of my coworkers, was determined to teach me Georgian folk dancing. Thank goodness I left my humility in America! Georgian dancing involves a lot of kicking, jumping, and mock sword fighting. Fortunately, we left the swords at home, but I spent a great deal of time running in circles and spinning in one place. The dance steps move so fast that I could never get the hang of it. Nevertheless, on the last night of the conference I made my big premiere as a Georgian dancer. It’s best not to talk about it…

On Wednesday, I reluctantly left my heated hotel room (with hot water and a shower!) and returned to Gori.

St. George’s Day
There was more excitement awaiting me in Gori…one of the most important days of the year—November 23, St. George’s Day. It should come as no surprise that George is the patron saint of Georgia (and for those keeping track—England, the city of Moscow, the US Armed Forces, and maybe some island in the Caribbean). By a fortunate coincidence, this year, the feast day fell on the same day as Thanksgiving. So, I and the entire city of Gori, walked up the side of a nearby mountain to an ancient church and shrine to pray and give thanks.

The church, Gori Jvari, is perched high on a cliff and can be seen from anywhere in the city. Thanks to the ankle deep mud, I took about an hour to reach the top. I went with my friend Dima, who is the head of another youth organization in Gori. Dima is twenty-five years old and had he been born in America, he probably would be the president of the most popular fraternity on campus. He had to greet everyone on his way up and drank wine at every picnic supra that we passed.

Approaching Gori Jvari. That's the Caucasus in the background.

The crowd grew as we neared the top. Many people were there to sacrifice their animals for a feast; tradition dictates that they take their livestock, walk them around the church three times, and slaughter them just outside the church grounds. As we walked up towards the church, we were joined by men pulling their sheep on leashes and women carrying chickens upside-down by their legs. I followed Dima as he walked around the church three times, kissing each corner. As we left, we passed the area where the sheep were being killed. It was not a scene for the weak of heart—sheep were led from the church, their throats were cut, they were hung on a rack, skinned and butchered. The butcher was working overtime, piling up heads and skins (no doubt someone was going to have a nice sweater from all the wool). I could keep my eyes of the spectacle. It made me realize how disconnected we Americans are from our food source. Come on guys, think about where that shrink-wrapped meat really comes from!

Dima and his following continued up the side of the mountain. We made a picnic at the top underneath a giant steel cross…if there’s one thing that Georgians love more than building churches on the sides of dramatic cliffs, it’s building huge crosses on the tops of mountains. What a great way to spend Thanksgiving—high on the top of a mountain with a breathtaking view of the Caucasus, drinking wine and teaching the Georgians American slang. I hope to do it again next year!

Some Random Anecdotes

  • This week also marked the first time that I’ve had a shower more than twice a week. My record is one week without a bath, although some legendary Peace Corps volunteer went for six whole weeks…don’t worry, I won’t be trying to break that record.
  • November 23 was also the third anniversary of the Rose Revolution. In 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters stormed the parliament and deposed President Edward Shevardnadze (who had also been the Foreign Minister of the USSR). Shevardnadze fled after the revolutionaries broke open the door to his chambers. Carrying a rose, Saakashvili took his place; no one resisted as he finished drinking Shevardnadze’s tea.
  • To mark this anniversary, President Saakashvili and President Yushenko of Ukraine (you may remember him of Orange Revolution fame) unveiled a giant golden statue of—you guessed it—Saint George in Tbilisi. Yushenko also attended the baptism of Saakashvili’s child and was the godfather. It was quite a symbolic event, drawing Ukraine and Georgia even closer together. I can’t help but feel bad for Vladimir Putin though; I doubt he even got an invitation to the party.
  • Yesterday, after handing me a kartopili (fried potato cake), the woman at the bakery where I frequent tried to set me up with the cashier. She was quite sly about it too—“Do you want anything else? Meat pie? Cheese bread? A wife?” Those Georgian women are tricky and they’re determined matchmakers.


  • At 1:15 PM, Blogger Jessica said…

    hmmm...dancing with georgian women, bakers propositioning you.....kissing churches! don't know about all this!

  • At 7:10 PM, Blogger Jennifer said…

    Can you show us how to do a Georgian folk dance at Nate and Mary Margaret's wedding? : ) All the chicks will dig it...and maybe even Ed.

  • At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Joy P said…

    So I want to see you dance when you come back. Hope all is well

  • At 7:32 AM, Blogger Michael said…

    i assure you that bulgarian horo is far superior to the trash they pass off for folk dancing in georgia.

  • At 8:45 AM, Blogger Ed McLenaghan said…

    Dancing with mock sword fighting!? Those are my kind of people :)


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