Monday, December 17, 2007

Grab-bag-o-thoughts, Episode I

  1. I've lately found out that the –jan suffix-thing of endearment ("Mama jan," "Ryder jan," "hey babycakes jan") used in Armenian has its roots in Persian and likely the various Indo- languages of the Indo-European family, including Pashto, as is repeatedly depicted as well in The Kite Runner, a novel that takes place in Afghanistan, one I'm reading right now. The fact that I'm learning a language that has stuff in common, however few, with Pashto is freaking awesome possum.
  2. Georgian TV just ran a spot for some sports show coming up this weekend, using the Star Wars theme. I don't think that would fly much in the states. I feel like that'd be like your local news opening with the theme to Indiana Jones.
  3. I just got called up for jury duty. Classic! I'm sure they'll let me out of it, but if not, you all might be seeing me a lot sooner, and I want to go out for a drink at a place with microbrews on tap, and I'll be spending lots of time at Target just… having a religious experience. And reveling in the concept of flip flops in January.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

One Dry Sock

I just wrapped up my first semester of teaching at Public #2, and more or less, depending on what exactly I'm measuring "success" to be, I'd call it a success. It coincided perfectly with my site visit by Peace Corps staff, and turned out to be a good week of professional introspection.

My Program Manager, Eka, the PC Country Director, and the NGO sector Program Manager came to Ninotsminda to touch base and see how I'm getting along with my counterpart and school in general, a routine part of service, and I think they were quite impressed. So was I, unexpectedly. I'd been out of the loop with my own school for about two weeks, due to a volunteer conference I had to attend near the capital, and a nasty bout with bronchitis that kept me up at the office in Tbilisi on medical for a few extra days, so I'd been a bit unprepared for the whole spiel by the time that it came around. That said, hats off to my counterpart and supervisor, who took the surprise of a staff visit well and were wonderful about it being a surprise (not an intended one; I just seemed to miss every opportunity to give them a heads up about it.

I was a bit worried that they'd come in and observe one of my older classes, where I'm still struggling with a terribly uphill battle of classroom management with the teenage boys. Not that it's bad for them to see my rough edges; Peace Corps Georgia has been at this long enough to know that well, teenagers are pretty much unmanageable around the world unless you happen to have a "horse whisperer" ability to get into their heads. I don't. Still, I had hoped to tell them of my worst challenges, but show them my greater successes. I lucked out. They came when I was to teach my fifth graders.

Let me tell you, I love my fifth graders. They're sweet, innocent, disproportionately bright, and just plain fun. I teach the class more than half in Russian since it's their first year of English, and while I can for sure hold my own in that language, I have plenty of silly mistakes, and they giggle forgivingly through each one. Every day when I walk in I get a dissonant blast of wholehearted "HELLO MISTER COBEAN! GOOD MORNING! HOW ARE YOU!" and it picks me up and pins a smile right to my face. I love these kids. Well, this morning I tell them "we have guests!" and they all excitedly stand up and smile for the Georgian and American that walk into the room with me. As I'd been out for almost two weeks, I didn't plan a lesson with my partner teacher, but she had totally come through for the both of us. Now, I've found that when the class is cooperative, I can totally improvise in such a situation and deliver a good lesson and make good use of myself (it's happened a few times before where we haven't been totally on the same page walking into the classroom, and I know how to turn that lemon into a decent glass of lemonade already). Still this time she was set for us. We gave a lesson on "I like/I love" along with fruits and vegetables and describing them with colors, and as usual was blown away at how good my youngins are. They were at their best despite two surprise visitors in the back of their room and soaked up the lesson. Two delightful highlights came when one child inadvertently professed his attraction to pears ("I love you, pear!") in response to my question "what fruit do you like?" and another informing me adamantly that apples are tasty when gray.

Anyway, following the lesson I had a series of meetings with the PC staff and my counterpart to discuss progress to date, and I realized that I may have been overcritical of my progress so far here. I think I set, without knowing it, really high standards for myself in the first semester, and got disappointed and guilty when I said to myself that homework turn-in is still low, test results are pretty bad, and my students aren't behaving themselves.

Then I realized I'd been basically just focusing on the challenges in my upper grades. My 5th and 6th grades are absolutely amazing. Success comes slowly, but more importantly, I know that more than half the kids in both those grades look forward to English with Mr Cobean, and smile with every right answer they get. Whether that's me, the lessons, or just the enthusiasm of youth I don't know but I'm pretty sure I'm helping at least contribute a positive feeling to a difficult language to pick up in a tiny mountain town in the South Caucasus.

I was going to bring up the glass half empty/half full metaphor, but something more appropriate came to mind. I walk home in snowmelt mud-puddly dirt roads about half the time of each week, and rarely come home with two dry socks. For some reason it's always my right sock that gets wet. Nonetheless, I still have one dry sock.

Keeping your head on straight in a teaching job like this is all about recognizing the one dry sock. I've got tons of dry socks at site: my school is very professional, well kept up, my faculty genuinely respects me as a peer, and those students that haven't caught the bug of malevolent puberty give me good effort, and will probably eventually start showing fruits of their toils. In general, I've got lots to be thankful for at my school. My counterpart and I occasionally have misunderstandings, most connected with language miscommunication, but we have a great and open working relationship.

I think I'm going to teach the younger grades more next semester, all the same; they just make me really happy even on the challenging days.

Plus, I get a kick out of realizing to myself every once in a while that my college degree landed me a gig where I can legitimately blame getting stuck behind a herd of cows for being late every once in a while.

Ninotsminda is mega cold these days, and I'm battening down the hatches for the winter months which obviously have already started (oh a good two months ago). But I've stockpiled music (you'll note the recent celebratory comment on facebook about finding some Talking Heads on the internet… not kidding), am teaching myself guitar, and am intensely immersed in learning Armenian these days, all winter lockdown pastimes, in case I get snowed in. So far, so good. Right now I'm dosing myself with one of my few mp3s of NPR's This American life, and if you guys want a good care package idea, a burned DVD full of podcasts from this show would probably make me weep with joy. Weep.

Weather and political situation permitting, I'm hoping to make a trip sometime soon enough to Erevan, and am really looking forward to it. I hope to get up a post about how Georgia-not-Georgia compares to Armenia-not-Georgia.

I'm sorry it's been so long since I've chimed in, but I'll be honest, life is pretty simple and repetitive, and it's hard to make a blog post over the injustice of the Donor Kebab place in Tbilisi going from 3 lari to 3.50 or the merits of rabbit shashlyk at the Ossetian restaurant. I mean, that was seriously a good 20 minutes of recent conversation, right there. I love it here, it's just

Still, I recently found a bar in the capital where a live Georgian band played the Dire Straits. I don't know if I've ever been happier.

… Until I stepped out to my house's entry and looked out the big window at the stars. Just caught two meteors running through Taurus and Orion—I wonder if there's a shower I'm not aware of this time of year. I love the sky at night. Being from Tucson, I thought I was lucky to have such a bright night sky there. Now I'm living in a town of 6,000 people; the nearest "big" city of 30,000 is two hours away and behind a mountain so I've got the best view of what's above ever. It's hard to make out the constellations there are so many stars. Oh! Awesome! Lila just by chance told me it's actually the best shower of '07, and it's coming on the 13th. I'll be ready for it.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

On Russian TV

Okay, I don't often hear myself speaking any language other than English. I don't hear much Russian because I haven't been around an american friend who's studied the language for a good year and a half. That means that the only Russian I hear is good Russian.

I'm watching some cop drama with my host brother and this episode features an ill-treated American. Yes there are plenty of things to be said about how ... "great" the acting is or the ridiculous Cold War motif, but mostly I'm all self conscious about how I must sound when I speak now. This guy sounds like a doof. I don't want to sound like a doof. This is the international, patriotic or something version of hearing your own voice in a tape recorder and saying "Why do I *sound* fat? Can someone *sound* fat? I sound husky."

On another TV note, I watch a lot of RuTV, Moscow's answer to MTV, as we've got a 12 year old teenager in the house. Some of the family hits include "The Greater the Love, the Lower the Kiss," interpreted as some kind of tantric Victoria's Secret ad in a Gothic cathedral, or the one with the girl riding a gigantic flying washing machine in the desert as a computer animated house with chicken legs parades around in the background. Where's the wholesome Christina Aguilera drrrty video when you need it?

There's this show that I watch on the Russian gov't channel, forgot the name, but it's essentially the grand epic sportsman battle of the millennium, at least as far as it's billed. Except it's mostly a show designed to demonstrate Russia's team of former olympians and various performing artists' athletic prowess against a broad sampling of international competitors. That means the USA, China, and ... Kazakhstan. Yep.

The events, treated with all the seriousness of the Boston Marathon plus a baptism or Freemasons initiation rite, include dressing up like a sumo wrestler and throwing beach balls into a hula hoop while an angry bull tries to gore you, dressing up like a mouse and running through a spinning obstacle course, and dressing up like a hillbilly and running on a conveyer belt, catching bread in a basket from a fishing pole. After such an epic competition, I will never watch the olympics again.

When the Americans started losing I started rooting for the Kazakhs, as there were a few cute women and a nice guy on the team and I had to find at least one reason to keep watching despite the number of sumo wrestlers I watched get gored by a stressed out bull in a godforsaken arena somewhere in France. (Yes, the show is recorded in Paris. The neutral ground venue adds a certain World Cup/No Man's Land je ne sais quoi touch to the whole affair). My host family told me I wasn't being patriotic enough. I'm sorry. When we can get our act together and learn to catch a freaking loaf of bread from a fishing pole while wearing a straw hat and black tooth wax, I'll be the first to take off my hat and sing You're a Grand Ol' Flag. Plus, rooting for the home team felt like somehow sanctioning the whole experience, elevating it from "guilty pleasure" to "hallowed feat of brain and brawn"

...And then I remembered that we televise bowling.