Wednesday, February 29, 2012


This week went by quickly. I woke up this morning to a beautifully white frosted city, and a notice that school had been cancelled.

our University campus
the little canteen where we drink tea

See our fridge has been creaky lately, and all our dairy is well, now several science experiments growing all kinds of green goo. We called our landlord and four days later, he stops by. He quickly called the company to send out workers to repair it. So today, I left the apartment because our electricity went out and I needed to get some work done. Of course, when our power goes out, the repair guys came to fix the fridge, but were unable to do so, obviously, because the electricity is out, they left. So the smells exponentially develop in the heat of our little cozy apartment. We call our landlord because clearly everything in our freezer is melting and our dairy is turning to slime. Six hours later he shows up and tells us that he will turn on the old fridge (that his ex-wife wanted back but never took and is resting in our stairway) so we can use something, but it won't work for another 24 hours at least. So what does he suggest? Our landlord says, just open your window and put the contents of your freezer in the snow for the next two days.

I'm not kidding.

And for fun, a picture of our snow adventures in Duzce!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Pamukkale, the Cotton Castles

The Travertines of Pamukkale 
It was the place I'd dreamed of visiting as a child. I remember staring at the National Geographic magazine and saying to my parents "I'm going to go there someday." It was my first memory of a desire to travel. Last weekend, I finally got to do it! It was magical! We entered the site of Pamukkale through the main walking entrance, mesmerized by the mounds of white calcium deposits artfully sculpted by nature, laying before us. I turned around and did a double take, bringing in the beauty behind the cotton castles (the nickname for Pamukkale) -- beautiful mountains that seemed to float in the sky, snow-capped and looming contrasting with the flat valley which lay before us, green and yellow in all it's plainness. It is a wonder to me how such a thing as this has come to be.

Throughout the day, I couldn't stop myself from closing my eyes and taking in every sense. As we sat onto of the calcium pools, after finishing our climb, the rush of a hot stream gushing through its man-made barriers, almost unable to hold back its intensity. The sound of a thousand little streams, slowly trickling down the endless travertines into the pools below, each racing the next to rush down the quickest. We made our way from the bottom of our travertines to the top, wading through perfectly blue shallow warm waters backwashed with bleach white pools made of calcium carbonate. A mere forty degrees Fahrenheit outside, the water was in places, steaming- creating  beautiful view of rising steam all around the travertines. After we reached the top, we sat on the wooden benches and dangled our toes in the warm water before we started exploring the city of Heriopolis- an ancient Roman city that rests on top of the mountain. More on Heriopolis to come...

The whole trip, I felt like a little girl, excited to explore the world again, with eyes open only to the beauty of the world! 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Stalin's Museum

We finally made it back to Georgia after a three day stint in Armenia. We were waiting for our plane back to Istanbul and decided to hit up the Stalin Museum, supposedly quite famous in these parts. In Georgia, there aren't any real buses, only mini-buses that travel throughout the country. Think a white van. We were just about to hop on a bus to take us to the city of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, but a taxi offered us the same price, so we jumped in and off to Gori we went. On the way we got pulled over by a police officer but all was well and we continued on our way. We were dropped off at the museum which was creepy, dark and Soviet in style and architecture. The museum was made up of two floors- the bottom a less than amazing gift shop and ticket center along with differ rooms of realistic recreations of Soviet interrogation rooms and prisons. Creeped out yet?
myself and a young Stalin 

world domination lamp
Upstairs was a small circular movie viewing room decorated only with blown up pictures of Stalin. After moving through that room, we made our way to the long corridor of the museum celebrating Stalin's life. It was the oddest museum I've ever seen. The rooms were every picture of Stalin ever taken, blown up into huge photos with descriptions in Russian and Georgian, printed on paper and glued to card board and taped to the wall.  Literally every picture of Stalin ever taken was in this room, separated by year. Every possession of his they could find was displayed in cases. Unfortunately, we couldn't read anything because there was no English, but lucky for us, the pictures said it all. There were maps of his military routes, glass cases of his world domination lamps, and pictures of him with different women and children. Lots of propaganda was proudly and prominently displayed. At the ed, they had a room with a bust of his head in the middle of a mini-colloseum. His actually body is in Moscow though.

Stalin's original house
Stalin's train car room

After the museum walk through, a nice museum worker gave us a tour of Stalin's personal train car and home. They have the bullet-proof train car perfectly preserved in front of the museum. It was actually pretty impressive. Stalin used this train car to travel to different war conferences and meetings. His house, the original structure, was preserved, once again surrounded by pillars protecting it. They preserved the house he was born in and of course, display some of his families possessions. Stalin came from modest beginnings, a one room house that now sits smack center of the museum property. I think the pictures speak for the museum better than I could! 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Villages of Armenia

Waking up early for our twelve-hour tour through Western and Northern Armenia, we stumbled groggily towards the waiting van. Luckily, our hostel, Envoy Hostel, the best hostel I have ever stayed at, seriously, organized an amazing tour and even dropped us off at the border on the way back. It was nice to interact with new people as well. We met a great guy from Colorado, another from Brazil. At precisely 9am we were off and running. As I have become accustomed to the Turkish tradition, showing up on-time to things is now a foreign concept to me. This is definitely a problem in countries where on time means five minutes early.

If you look at the map, we started in Yerevan and drove straight north. We traveled along that straight line North and then curved down towards the west where we explored and ended on the border with Georgia- the end where the peach color touches the border of Armenia. We visited so many places that day like Kuchak, Aparan, Sanahim, St. Ameriaprkich Church, Haghpat Monastery, Ohanavan (adorable city where a little church sits on a hill)  to name a few. 

Armenian letters of the alphabet in the snow
Our tour group! 
Haghpat Monastery 
the mountains of Armenia 

We left the city of Yerevan and drove past dozens of small villages, passing ghost towns, abandoned Soviet chemical factories and strip clubs/casinos.  It was a random assortment of things to pass within a mile. My favorite stop was our last strip at a church with the most magnificent view, something that would be in a fantasy movie. But that time we’d all bonded and lunch was full of festivities and merriment. When we finally stopped for lunch, I was positive we had stopped in the wrong place. This was not a restaurant. Two trailer homes were nestled into a little semi-circle, complete with dogs playing in the front yard, a smoker releasing fluffy plumes into the air and a "wash bin" i.e. a host next to a feeding trough to wash your hands. I asked our tour guide where the restroom was and she, ever so sweetly, informed me that there was only a village toilet. A village toilet? A village toilet consists of a wooden box with a hole in it down a flight of wooden, splintering crickety stairs that you are sure are going to collapse when you put the weight of anything more than your toe on them. It reminded me of that scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the kid has to jump in the outhouse dump... gross. The only difference was that the river was a mere two meters away from the village toilet. And funny story? Our dear friend John dropped his camera into the village toilet opening in the floor!!! And he had to, and did, fish it out! When we sat down for lunch, the brought in a wide variety of local foods I was now terrified to taste, fearing they'd been rinsed close to the village toilet. We gobbled down BBQ pork (you have no idea how much you love pork until you live in a country where there is no pork!)  and fresh village breads and cheeses. Shortly afterward,  the tour company dropped us off at the border and we said our fair wells. Goodbye Armenia.

From one traveler to another- Armenia and Georgia are highly recommended on my list of places to go to. They are surprisingly unique and have some of the oldest architecture and monuments in the region. No one thinks about it, but I guarantee you, you wouldn't regret it!

Interesting facts I learned about Armenia on the tour: 

  1. Armenia was the FIRST country to adopt Christianity as the national religion in 301 AD.
  2. The difference between the Orthodox Church and the Apostolic Church of Armenia is that Jesus is the holy spirit and man, in one. This is different than Orthodox, who believe there is a separation of man (Jesus), God and spirit. 
  3. To this day Armenian's can't go to Azerbaijan because, as our tour guide says, "it is dangerous for our lives."
  4. Cher and the Kardashians are famous Armenians! 
  5. In Armenian cemeteries there is a "resting stone" (which I almost sat on!!!) where they lay each dead body before being placed in their graves. Also, laser engravings of the deceased persons face, or even a bust, rests above the tomb.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Armenian Genocide Memorial

Day 2 in Armenia began slowly. After a good dose of coffee and journaling, I decided I really needed a day to myself to do some exploring and reflect. That morning EB and Alyson left to return to Georgia, but we wanted to visit the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial. During the highly controversial French law debate, the Armenians were celebrating and the Turks were up in arms. The night before we visited the memorial, I had stayed up late in the hostel sending emails in the downstairs lobby. With me were a few other Armenian guys, watching the French Parliament vote on the law to make the denial of the Armenian genocide illegal. I joined them in watching this decision, and when the vote passed, the men literally threw piles of candy in the air and danced around hugging each other! It was a moment I felt grateful to be a part of. That day was a highly meaningful day for the Armenian people. Many of my Turkish friends, though not all, were outraged at the French decision. My students denounced France and were livid at the French government, to say the least. So imagine our surprise finding ourselves in Armenia on the night the resolution passed, and being lucky enough to visit the memorial the next day. We headed to the Armenian Genocide Memorial which sits on top of a huge hill overlooking the city.  It is dedicated to the victims killed by the Young Turks party in 1918. [For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, it is a hotly contested issue- the Armenians claim genocide of hundreds of thousands while the Turks strongly deny its occurrence.] The memorial was made entirely of metal and stone, and reminded me of several of the memorials in the Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad VaShem. The museum was closed, (apparently it closes for 2 months during the winter) much to our dismay, but the memorial was profound. It was comprised of a circle of steel columns leaning inward, protecting a single flame in the center. The symbolism I found was two-fold. First, the standing pillars must always protect the flame, fighting to burn continuously- a symbol of the struggle of international recognition of the genocide. Second, the monument is always partially in shadow: that the genocide was and continues to be partially covered, shrouded. I later learned the true intent behind the structure, related to me by my tour guide. The tower symbolizes the birth of the nation and the twelve pillars surrounding the flame represent the twelve regions of Armenia they lost to other countries. There were gardens of trees surrounding the monuments planted in memory of many Armenians. We saw a tree planted by Bob Dole, who I didn’t know was a strong supporter of the recognition of the genocide. After spending several minutes in silence and reflection, we headed to eat- and after I visited the National Gallery, which had another section on the genocide with some very interesting quotations. (See below)
Before parting our separate ways, John, Ramsey and I headed toa café near the national gallery where I met a really amazing woman from Holland. She and two friends were biking from Holland to China. The whole way! She regaled us with some exciting adventures. (I am trying to find her blog for all of you to follow!)

So off I went to the National Gallery, which is split into two parts, the Art Museum and the National History Museum, where I chose to spend the afternoon. What I learned that may be of some interest to my fellow nerds:
1.     The region Armenia rests in was once ancient Assyria!
2.     Warrior costumes here were reminiscent of what my mind always imaged the great warriors of old would look like; gold plated armor, pointy hats of bronze and thick shields.
3.     No matter how far back you go in history, in every museum there are collections of ancient jewelry. Really, women haven’t changed all that much!
4.     From the 7-13th centuries, the governments used coins in numerous languages and all were accepted. But how did they make change? They literally cut up the coins into smaller fragments for small change.
5.     And now to the controversial. Readers beware. People get pretty heated over the following comments.
a.     The quotes below are taken word for word from the National History Museum’s section on the genocide.
b.     “Today, all reputable specialists in Genocide Studies, who have firm scientific principles and don’t yield to political considerations, consider the Armenian genocide as the first genocide of the 20th century.”(1915)
c.     They [Young Turks- the Union and Progress political party] advanced a racial thesis of forced conversion of all non-Turkic peoples, a thesis based on the idea of Turks supremacy. One and a half million Armenians were killed who refused to become Turks. One million were deported and exiled into the Arabian deserts. The solution of the Armenian question was left to the Ottoman Empire exclusively, who settled the matter in a Turkish manner, i.e. with a sword.” 

Hearing both extremely passionate perspectives has been an eye-opening experience for me this year. I make no claims, and I am most certainly not an expert. But I encourage you to research yourself. Knowledge is everything. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Post-Soviet Armenia

Heading towards the Armenian version of Central Park and the National Cathedral of Armenia, we wandered through the stark, cement and pretty much lifeless park where we saw several army officers and their wives sauntering through the park hand in hand. Love blooms even in the dreariest of places! A gloomy, cloudy kind of day progressed as the clouds whipped the wind faster around the park until it began to snow. Heavy, windy snow. We walked pass several markets selling Russian fur hats that we tried on - trying to contain our giggles- and marveled at the large boat like building looming behind the markets, which turned out to be an old Russian national theatre, which now acts as a market. Across the busy street was the Cathedral: grand, tan and stunningly magnificently tall. And next to the church was a little carnival on the left and the slums of Yerevan on the right. Somehow its location felt quite odd. The juxtaposition of shut down carnivals and slums with the grandeur of the church was mind boggling.

The church steps were like a were like a marathon leading upward. By the time we reached the top we were out of breath but impressed. The church was as unusual as its location. It was light, spacious and very much like my church at home. It was eerily quiet, though filled with people with a picture of baby Jesus centrally depicted. Many were praying, but there were no typical candles or fancy decorations. Only very new, very clean and very simple decorations adorned the National Cathedral. It felt the most down to earth to me. After the church we made our way back to the hostel. We met up with our friends and the Irishmen and went out to a restaurant that a Peace Corps volunteer recommended. It was the BEST restaurant ever. It was dirt cheap, with Armenian music and an amazingly delicious and huge menu. We drank Armenian wine, ate delicious desserts of granola and chocolate, tried spinach and walnut paste balls and a million other things on the menu. When we left the restaurant a snow storm developed and was going strong. We stopped in one of the central square and had a massively enjoyable snow ball fight! I haven't felt that much like a little kid in a long time. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Blue Mosque of Armenia

The Blue Mosque, Yerevan, Armenia 

We set out, of course, first for food. We were so hungry, we dashed down the stairs of a sketchy looking restaurant that had an overwhelmingly large menu and a button to call the waiter if we needed anything! The only bad thing about Post-Soviet countries? There is a whole lot of chain smoking in restaurants. Gross. But regardless, we ordered a wide spread of food. I tried cow tongue, a village cheese platter and a salad. We were satisfied after trying all the local dishes- the cow tongue was by far the best! We left bellies bulging and headed over to the only remaining mosque in Armenia, the Blue Mosque. The mosque was brilliant in color, with jeweled blue and yellow tiles. In the old days, it was also utilized as a madrasa (a religious school) and today, those rooms are used to teach English. The mosque no longer calls for prayers, but several Iranian students in Armenia use it for prayer. The inside of the mosque was different than anything I'd even seen, black signs with neon-colored letters hung from the walls. It was incredibly unique and the only Shiite mosque I'd ever seen. I walked into the office where the most adorable Iranian little old lady proceeded to meet us, ask questions and take us on a free tour of the complex. It was freezing outside and while she led us around the vast complex, her tour stops became exceedingly shorter, and at the end she said "ok, thank you, nice to meet you!" She wobbled away so fast, yelling over her shoulder, "the weather is cold!"

Apostolic Church: lighting prayer candles

We split up into two groups, Alyson, Ramsey and I decided to explore central Yerevan.

We first (accidentally) entered a wrestling training center we mistook for a church. Don't ask how. It was only after we entered in and peeped through the frosted windows and noticed the huge flyers plastered to the cement walls, that we scurried out as quickly as possible. Oops. Shortly thereafter, we did ever our 1st Armenian apostolic church. Dark, formal and hanging a picture of baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary centrally located at the altar- the church was lit only by candle light. A room to the side was filled with large tin rectangular boxes filled with water and lit candles. The flames reflected so beautifully off the water, dripping wax into the water. A little old lady walked around and collected all the waxy drips in her little rusted old bucket.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

International Day of Love

Today I regaled my new students (new semester=new students!) with the customs of an American Valentine's Day! I passed out conversation hearts and we translated all the slang terms like lol, luvU4eva and whaz up? I loved teaching these terms: (particularly because I had to act them all out, and the students almost died with laughter & some embarrassment)
  • to make a pass at
  • lovesick 
  • to propose
  • to fall for 
  • gifts
  • romantic gestures
So, of course, being the hopeless romantic that I am, I encouraged my students in class to write a letter to the person they love most. One of my students is engaged, and some have boyfriends or girlfriends, but most are single.  Here are some excerpts I found too cute not too share...

"Today February 14, is Valentine's Day. I love you. I was together endless you. I see only your eye. I open your eye to the sea. My love run together our way. Yours forever. I get real love you. I love you. See you my lover." 

"Hello my angel. February 14 today and today our day. I love you. I miss you angel. We are happy. We will marrie. I want to be decide. You are my everything. Are we missing? I want to you come."

"Hi my love. Valentine's is today and I love you so much. It is good that you exist. You are my life, our unity. My love is real. Because, I love you." 

It is days like today that the realization of just how universal everything is hits me hard. Love is love no matter where you go. Though customs may differ and expressions of this love change in every culture, in the end, we all want to love and be loved. So today, go love. Love the people in your life who you value most, and tell them how important they are.

Monday, February 13, 2012

True Life: I Survived a Marshrutka

Arriving just in time to catch a marshrutka to Yerevan, the last way to get from Tblisi, the capital of Georgia to the capital of Armenia, we hopped right onto the bus. Joining us on the bus were three Irishmen; Hugh, Mogue and Conner- great guys. But we really weren't prepared what we were in for. Stupidly, we sat in the very back of the bus, the four of us girls comfortably fit together while the boys took seats further towards the front. ad idea. Throughout the ride, actually within the first five minutes we discovered the car had no shocks. As in no absorbing material as we raced through the dirt roads full of pot holes and bumps. With each bounce, and there were many along the way, we flew out of our seats. Within the first fifteen minutes we all looked knowingly at each other- vomiting was definitely going to happen. It was an eventuality on this 7 hour ride.

We tried to sleep and it halfway worked. But then, Alyson, a fellow Fulbrighter, and old Peace Corps volunteer for Kyrgyzstan decided to regale us with stories about marshrutkas she's taken in the largely unknown country of Kyrgyzstan. "In Kyrgyzstan, the marshrutkas always get in accidents. I was in at least five." Oh good. "One time, on a marshrutka in Krgyzstan, our bus caught fire and I had to climb over people to escape." So as I begin having panic attacks, the marshrutka driver seemed to sense my discomfort and decided to do something about it. He sped up. Meanwhile, it is just past sunset, we just crossed the Armenian border and there are dark, icy, two-way roads that are actually only one lane wide. The driver careened around the sharp mountain roads expertly, with no pause or consideration for traffic that might be coming the other way. And because apparently one of their main roads from the border collapsed last year, they are rebuilding the road and we were lucky enough to bump along for a good thirty minutes on a wet, mud, pot-filled road. The inside of the marshrutka was so warm compared to the biting cold outside, the windows had formed a good layer of ice on the inside of the windows. With every bump, as my bum flew further of the seat, I wandered how much longer I could keep my dinner down.

We finally made it to Yerevan, alive. And mostly in one piece.

  • Traveling from Tbilisi to Yerevan? This is pretty accurate. But note that the trains between Tbilisi and Yerevan only run on odd or even days, depending on which way you are coming from.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Jvari & the Sheep Fat Hat

Snaking up to Jvari through the icy mountain roads, we passed yet another magnificent trash tree. Our little grandpa of a driver informed us, through both expressive hand gestures and a bit of Russian, that this was a particularly special tree because after the brides get married in the church of Jvari, they tear a piece of their veil or dress and tie it on the tree for good luck to the next brides to be. So with our good bridal luck in tow, we made it safely up the mountain where we saw the stunning church overlooking the river.

Separated into two different parts, the older part of the church was called the "Hermit Hole." A monk lived at the bottom of a 8 foot hole for seven years and all he was fed was bread and water, or as Nikola (our cab driver told me) "like bird." We unfortunately couldn't decipher why exactly this was. After taking in all the clean mountain air that filled our lungs with icy breath, we huddled towards the church door in search of warmth. The inside of Jvari Monastery was simple and circular with a huge wooden cross extending upwards in the center of the circular church with flowers and lit candles surrounding its base. The church was built in the 4th century by St. Nino, the woman who first brought Christianity to Georgia. It was beautiful, but the view will stick in my memory forever.  (see above) After our tour we headed back to the central bus station in Tbilisi, where we were lucky enough to snag the last Marshrutka (ultra-dangerous mini-bus) to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, at 15:00. Because the trains only run every other day to Armenia, on the even days, we had to make do and get to Armenia any way we could. (Stayed tuned for True Life: I Survived the Marshrutka!)

When we returned to the hostel to grab our things, we left the hostel in search of lunch. But before I could walk a mere twenty meters, and old man literally stopped in the street. Stared at me. Stared some more. Baa'ed at me! As in, he made a sheep's noise in my direction. He laughed, and walked away. No one will ever let me live it down. I was baa'ed at in Tbilisi. Granted the hat is made out of sheep fat and wool, and it kind of smells like a barn. But seriously, check out the hat. Legit, I know. Oh, and a kid baa'ed at me too. Classic really.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Drawing Inspiration

When abroad, the things that keep you going through the good days are the people who inspire you. A friend recently asked who my ideal role models would be. I thought for three days and couldn't think of one famous person that I'd want to be my role model. Of course, Abraham Lincoln, Margaret Thatcher and Rumi would be my first thoughts. But when it comes down to it, on my dreariest of days, my thoughts drift where I draw my inspiration.

As today was a rather dreary day in Duzce, filled with endless hours of napping, reading the news, blogging and Grey's Anatomy, I had a large chunk of time to reflect upon my inspiration in life. I realized it comes from others, from the beauty of the world.  However, I really don't have a mentor. Not in the sense most people think of. I don't think one person embodies what I strive to be. Though there are many famous people I respect, the people I admire most are the ones I love. The people I hope to become more like. It is those people in my life, that I believe push me to be my very best and help me dream of things that never were.

I admire the ability to be in tune with both nature and others. I admire my friends who have the unique ability to read people and mold to what they need in that moment. A chameleon; the people who sense pain and sadness and can instantly make others feel loved, at ease, and peaceful. They have the ability to make people relax and appreciate the world around them. I admire endless kindness. As Dumbledore once said, Kindness is something people never fail to undervalue. Endless kindness is a trait I one day hope to embody a bit more. I admire the kind of person who changes the world one smile at a time. I admire innovative, creative dreamers who see the beauty of this world in the most unexpected places. I admire those who listen endlessly because they care.

My dream mentor does not exist. My dream mentor would embody the beautiful qualities of the people I love and respect. My closest friends are the ones who change my life, and for that, I am grateful. The further away I travel, the more I realize how blessed I am to have such people in my life. And also, the more I realize true inspiration comes from love, from a deep desire to make the world a better place for the ones you love.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monastic Life

World's "Most Interesting Building"

We woke up and met Nikola, our adorable old-grandpa like Georgian taxi driver outside the hostel.  We hired him to show us around the countryside to Mtskheta to see some beautiful monasteries and stunning landscape. We hopped in the cab, cramming the four girls and John into our little yellow cab, and we were on our way to see "the world's most interesting building-" a bank built like something you'd build with legos! When we finally got out of the city, the change from city-life to village life was immediately evident. There was no in-between. We arrived in Mtskheta and walked through the eerily quiet streets to the gigantic Monastery we had wanted to see in the first place: the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. The streets were lined with baby chalet-looking houses and little shacks selling knick-knacks. I bought the world's best hat- a giant white sheep wool fur hat. It is priceless. I was mercilessly teased for buying it, but I loved it. The monastery is my favorite church I have ever been to. As you walked in through the protective ached stone walls; stunning and surrounded by a courtyard with benches, breathtaking news of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and a pool for purification. When we walked inside the church, my ears were greeted by the most beautiful choice I'd ever heard. Monks raised their voices in song, blending together seamlessly. The women alternated with the men, creating the most melodious sounds. We walked into the middle of a service and were lucky enough to see how the religious customs are different than ours. At points of pause, when the priest was leading the service, the people bent down tot he floor and touched their heads or lips in reverence, to the tile, quite similar to how Muslims bend down to pray. I marveled at the blend of styles and the tiny little children daring around their elders, engaging in a game of hide and seek. Out of all the churches I've seen in my life, Europe included, this church is the most astounding. Ornate, yet tasteful, their were pictures of angels with Christ, adorned with in gold, decorating the walls. It was the only church we entered that had a mural of Christ as the central painting. Our tour guide told us that this is because when Bartholomew (the disciple) brought Christianity to Georgia, he carried with him a portrait of the Virgin and Child. The service was so moving, we all stayed and listened until the end. I felt pulled to that spot, anchored. But when the service ended, we moved slowly back through the cobbled streets to the monastery of Jvari nestled high up in the mountain, overlooking the river that snakes through the valley surrounded by mountains. (Jvari, to be continued...)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Turkish Community

After a lazy weekend of writing emails I'd been avoiding and catching up on the million little things that get away from you over time, I decided to venture out of my purple and lime green apartment. The weather today was a stunning 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest it's been in months. The sun was shining and the sky was a perfectly crystal clear blue. I took the opportunity to wander through the streets of Duzce and revel in my hometown.

Isn't it funny how sometimes, in our own cities, we stop exploring. We think we know what there is to do, where there is to go and that's that. But I always find, with a little exploration comes a little discovery. Today I discovered two new parks I'd never seen before, a great bookstore and a fabulous little bakery. This fine Sunday was the busiest I'd seen our little downtown in months. With such gorgeous weather, all the families were out strolling, pushing carriages along the sidewalks, children trying to eat ice cream as it dripped down their little winter jackets and hundreds of people outside playing backgammon, soaking up the luscious sun rays and drinking tea. Walking through Duzce's main avenue; a pedestrian only double cobble-stoned street lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, book stores and the like,  I finally felt a sense of community. Though I was alone, for the first time in a long time, I felt as though I had integrated. Like this is now a routine, that now I blend in more, now I can communicate and use the normal Turkish body language. That people don't automatically ask me where I am from.

It routinely amazes me how a small thing like non-verbal cues can alert someone to your "foreign" status. Muttering the proper greetings of hello, good-bye and thank you are the most basic. But knowing how to act when entering a store, knowing to click and nod your head upwards when you mean 'no' and knowing how to negotiate prices makes a huge difference between someone treating you like a local and a foreigner. Today, I did all the right things. I chatted with the manav owner for a while (manav=local small store where you buy your fresh produce) and the guys at the bus company now know me by name. My students greeted me on the streets. Though it may seem insignificant, these minute things add up to contribute to your sense of belonging. Knowing you act like a local makes all the difference. Today, I was a citizen of Duzce. Today, the mothers smiled at me when their children came to say hello. The shopkeepers knew me. The streets were familiar. Today was the perfect day.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Duzce Winter

Never have I ever lived in a place with a real winter. And by real winter I mean needing to wear 5 different layers to work, having your toes go numb for hours, seeing never ending days of beautiful white snow flurries, and of course, having snow days. Duzce, apparently, has had its coldest winter in nearly twenty years. Lows of about 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit were normal.

For a good week, we must've gotten at least 3-4 feet of snow.(that's about 1-1.5 meters ya'll) This week was a beautiful time for me to revel in the newness of winter. While most people think of spring as a time of renewal, winter has become a symbol of purity and renewal for me. When the snow falls, everything is covered in white mounds of beauty. All the mud, the ugly is covered by a sheet of perfect whiteness. And between the time of perfect whiteness and sloppy mush was, for me, a symbol of rediscovery. Letting the problems temporarily simmer and vanish beneath the snow, providing ample time to let an honest analysis take place, until you are ready to emerge back to reality and face the world in your own way.

While all of this symbolism was grand and thought-provoking, I had a little real time troubles of my own. Never having experienced a full fledged winter before, I am quite ignorant in the ways of snow and all that goes with it. So imagine my surprise when I brew my coffee on Tuesday morning, same as usual, and then turn on the water to rinse my good ole' coffee mug and there is no water. Convinced it was a city-wide water outage (which happens about once ever two weeks for about 6 hours) we dealt with it and went to school. There we learned this was not a universal problem. Still, we thought, maybe it is only our building. We checked with our landlord and told him (in our marvelously broken Turkish) that we had no water. His face dropped. Defeat was visible in his eyes. Confused, I turned to Tas. And then we knew. The pipes had frozen. How could this have happened?!? We've had the hot water on, Tas took a hot shower this morning, I boiled coffee, how are we the only ones with frozen pipes? Our landlord explained that our pipes are the only ones on the outside of the building because our building is newest. Oh dandy. It gets better.

We asked Metin our landlord, "has this happened before." His answer, "no," explained it all, or so said the expression on his face. The winters are rarely this cold, and the possibility of broken pipes slowly seeped into his brain. We asked him what to do, how to fix it, what action to take. (typically American, I suppose) His answer was "it is very difficult." We pressed him for actions we could take, with each suggestion meeting a "it is very difficult." In the end, he told us we must wait. After that we had a knock on our door and her brought us 3 big jars of water so we could, you know, flush toilets and wash our hands and brush our teeth. We were without water for a good 2.5 days, not long in the grand scheme of life. But darn long enough to make you appreciate water. And systematic organization of utilities. And knowledge of things like water being frozen in pipes. Life lesson learned.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Take a number

Making our way to the famous Georgian National Cathedral, the road twists and turns upwards to first reach the President's house. The road is lined with security guards every ten feet, monitoring our movements, yet smiling back at my attempts to pronounce hello in Georgian accurately. Which, by the way is, gmarjoba. (See below for Georgian script)

The President's house in an oddly shaped complex- with squares on top of square-shaped buildings which rested behind a glass dome that can be viewed miles away. We snuck in some pictures, though a few of the guards made the girls delete the photos. After our thirty minute walk from the Soviet Market to the National Cathedral , the newly built church came into view and can only be described in one word; grandiose. Walking into the church you must first pass through the entrance gates- similar to those of a castle, large, stone, looming, complete with watch and bell towers. They make you feel miniscule compared to your environment. Completely built in a gold colored marble, when I entered the courtyard, a sigh escaped my lips. After taking dozens of photos, we skipped our way up the seemingly endless steps leading to the new marble church. On our way up, we saw tons of brides and grooms walking out of the church, giving kids money, a tradition (also present in Turkey) which happens after wedding ceremonies. We finally entered the church and had to cover our hair with scarves. Astounded by the amount of light inside, the church was very crowded. It was a Saturday around four in the afternoon, the sun's light slowly giving way to the misty chill of sunset. Dozens of brides and grooms were lined up waiting for their turn in the wedding ceremony. The Georgian church is nothing if not efficient. The priest lined up three couples at a time in a row, blessing them as he moved down the line. The women then lined up to enter the back, covered, part of the church, but not before each bride paused and prayed before the Virgin Mary and kissed the portrait. The priest blessed them and then moved along to the next couple. Lines of couples waited silently in the shadows, and moved into their place, ready to tie the knot. Long story short, in the Georgian church, marriages are plentiful and the church is efficient. The result? Multiple weddings. At the back of the church is a number machine, like the kind you get at a deli, which determines the number of your marriage that day. Group number five waits in the background, the maids of honor in tiny dresses and five inch stilettos which made the girls admire her fortitude. The shoes weren't made for walking.

By the way, just kidding about the number thing. If anyone knows how that number is determined, or the culture reasons behind them, I'd be delighted to find out! Any Georgian readers out there?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Soviet Market

Waking early, we were of course still late to meet our friend. Well, not so much a friend as much as a friend of a friend. I met a girl in Gainesville who'd recently finished her Peace Corps service in Georgia. She knew a few people who were still there and contacted one of them so he'd show me around. Andrew was his name, and he was a really interesting guy! He offered to give us a mini-tour of the city, so we met him at Liberty Square, surrounded by looming magnificent government buildings, statues and ritzy hotels. These situations have the potential for extreme-awkwardness. So many times people you meet are strange, a bit off, or highly unsocial. Thank god that wasn't that case! We were surprised and relieved at his normal-ness and rather witty personality. At first, when I walked up to the hotel, I couldn't figure out if it was him or not. Wearing a bowlers hat, ponytail swinging, and dark brooding eyes, I wasn't sure if this was Andrew, or a random guy. But it was, and after a mildly awkward initial encounter, he led us to this great cafe connected to a bookstore where we enjoyed pumpkin pie and some excellent, house brewed coffee. Conversation and coffee flowed while we enjoyed Georgian-style pumpkin pie. The next thing you know, an hour and a half had passed. I bought these awesome tattoos, you know, the kind you buy when you were a kid. It was a mini-booklet full of stars and moon tattoos. I couldn't think of anything more appropriate for our first moment of group bonding. You see, on the way to meet Andrew, we ran into another Fulbrighter, John, in Liberty square. He joined us to meet Andrew, and ended up staying with us throughout the whole trip. So, we tattooed ourselves in this little coffee shop and headed out to explore the fine city of Tblisi.

With our new tour guide, we were led through a series of excellent parks with towering statues of Georgian political and cultural leaders. I was expecting Georgia to be very Post-Soviet like but I was pleasantly surprised. No dreariness. It was full of sparkling twinkling lights, cultural centers, churches, and great restaurants. But, I spoke too soon. We arrived at what is known as the "Soviet market." {This blog includes some excellent photos}Boy was I wrong. Nothing could've been more Soviet. It was only in 1991 that Georgia declared independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Traces of the Soviet architecture, cuisine and culture and present, but not quite as prevalent as I saw in Armenia.

We walked through rows of old utensils, posters of Stalin, Russian currency, old cameras, swords, guns, stamps, huge furry Russian hats, socks- anything you can associate with the USSR, you would be able to find this market. We haggled with the vendors, who were quite sweet. Toothless, but sweet. It was nothing like haggling in Egypt or Turkey, where negotiating a price is a marathon, a struggle, a source of pride. Here, the haggling back and forth was all in good fun. People were extremely welcoming and some knew a little English. Old Russian music floated through the winter air. Old men, adorned in brown furry winter hats chatted and smoked cigarettes faster than I could watch. My friends bought old Soviet posters and coins, and then we made our way slowly out of the market. My head was spinning, trying to remember all the cool stuff I saw. I wasn't ready to leave. Markets, are, in my opinion the ultimate place for people watching, not to mention a brilliant display of a culture that, at one time, was extremely prevalent in Georgia and still is effecting the culture today.

P.S. for a bit more insight into Georgian culture and traditions, check out Andrew's blog

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