Churches, Monasteries and Museums: A Georgian Field Trip

Hello Loyal Readers!
For my American readers, I wish you and yours a happy Father’s Day. My gift from afar to my own father will be to finally update my blog! I started slacking on the blog in the last month or so, mostly because the reality of returning home set in and I was trying to spend as much time with my friends and host family, experiencing as much of Georgia as possible. That is how I ended up saying yes to an invitation on a 3 day excursion to Kakheti, the wine region on the opposite end of Georgia, with my school’s graduating seniors.

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi took roughly 7 hours

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi, the capital of Kakheti, took roughly 7 hours

The drive was above average, since the marshrutka was hired and therefore actually stopped when passengers had to pee, get something to eat, or saw something that they wanted to take pictures of. And, on top of that, all of the passengers were students and teachers from my school, so when they fall asleep on you it’s not as creepy.

I was told to meet at the school at 10 am, and I don’t know why I bothered showing up on time. At this point, the lack of urgency, planning, and punctuality in Georgia is no longer a surprise to me. I staked out a good seat on the marshrutka, and read my book for 2 hours before the rest of the passengers arrived. Then, it somehow took another hour of buying coca cola, visiting the ATM, and dawdling needlessly before we managed to leave Chokhatauri region. Beyond the slow start, the first day ran pretty smoothly overall, with a reasonable number of bathroom breaks and one long stop for lunch in Surami, a pretty wooded area on the main highway in Georgia.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

We arrived in Sighnaghi, known in Georgia as “the love city” and advertised to tourists as the most European city in Georgia around 7 pm. Assuming we had a hotel, guesthouse, or campsite lined up was also a mistake on my part. Instead, we drove into the center of town where a bidding war for our patronage took place. There were 19 of us total, and our best offer was a guesthouse just outside the center for 7 lari a night each, equivalent to about $5 USD.

After choosing beds and setting down our luggage, we yet again produced a mystery meal of boiled eggs and cucumber salad out of nowhere. By 8pm we headed into the city center.

Sighnaghi by night

Sighnaghi by night

I can definitely understand how Sighnaghi got the European label. The entire city rests on a hilltop, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets lit by lanterns. It was quiet and calm after dark, allowing us to wander the streets and enjoy it’s beauty. The kids were all very intrigued by my Nikon, and designated me their photoshoot photographer for the trip, which was fun at first but quickly got on my nerves toward the end, but more on that later.

Eventually, the marshrutka parked near a park, and the kids blasted music from its speakers, doing dance routines from various concerts and performances throughout their high school career. It was one of those moments that felt so very Georgian, because it was.

The new graduates dancing to "Gangnam Style" because, of course

The new graduates dancing to “Gangnam Style,” because, of course

By midnight we returned to the guest house, where I almost immediately hit the sack. I slept for 2 amazing hours before the celebrating children, who had been sipping wine and beer and vodka out on the patio, charged the dorm giggling and chatting. It was 4:3o am before they finally shut up and I was able to go back to sleep. It was a cruel 8 am awakening on day 2.

Day 2 started with coffee, khachapuri, and cake. We packed and said goodbye to our host and loaded up the marshrutka for what would end up being a 13 hour tour of the many churches and monasteries of Kakheti.

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Morning view of Sighnaghi while driving away

The day began not 5 kilometers from Sighnaghi, in a monastery complex that included a natural spring which was supposed to bring health and spiritual rebirth. I did not feel like stripping down naked, even if only in the company of a nun, to step into freezing cold water, and the spring didn’t look like much on the outside, so I managed a nap on a shady bench to work off some of the tired from a shitty night of sleep.

After that, we had a bit of a longer drive, so I was able to break free from that feeling I often get in Georgia, where you don’t really feel like you’re getting anywhere. Georgian churches are beautiful, sparse in their decor, lit by memorial candles, etc, but they all sort of look the same after a while. I think we saw 7 or 8 total on day 2.

Well, they definitely have a type

Well, they definitely have a type

Some of the churches stood out more than others, some had frescoes inside, some had monasteries attached, some were surrounded by sweeping views of the unarguably beautiful Kakheti countryside, but I grew fatigued by the sheer volume of churches at a certain point. Georgia is something like 93% Orthodox Christian, which included everyone but me on this excursion. Each stop would have the girls pulling on full length skirts and tying on head scarves, buying and lighting candles, kissing entryways and crossing themselves. I felt, out of place. Georgians see a bit of tourism, evidenced by the wrap skirts provided outside most churches for the under-dressed, but it was still a bit awkward to be the only person in a party of 19 who was not participating in the many rituals of the church.

Toward the end of the day we visited a church that doubled as an archaeological dig site, complete with tarped off areas and scattered tools. I saw many clay pots, pieces of simple metal jewelry, and a human skull!

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I don’t know if it was lack of sleep, exhaustion, or what, but throughout the day I could feel myself getting pissy. I tried really hard to fight it, but little things were adding up to make me quite angry. The camera issue is one of them. Ever since the villagers first noticed my Nikon, I have felt kind of used. Every invitation to concerts, picnics, and Birthday parties is attached to the addendum “and you will bring your camera and take pictures.” It’s never a question. On this trip, I was being instructed by the other travelers to “take photo of this hill” or “Kacie, I want a picture in front of this.” As the day progressed, I got more and more annoyed as I was lining up a shot and was interrupted by a request to photograph something else that I don’t even care about.

When we finally got to Telavi, where we would be spending the night, my photographer status was hitting an ultimate high when I was saved by a freak storm, complete with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. We hopped into the marshrutka and searched for a budget hotel.

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My final commissioned photo before the storm hit

After 45 minutes of driving in circles in the rain, we found a cheap hotel (again 7 lari each, this time with double rooms so I could actually sleep.) We ate a late dinner where we were joined by a stray Polish traveler who thankfully spoke English. He asked me a lot of questions about Georgia and it was nice to feel like an authority on the matter.

I slept well that night, stirring only when Shorena, my co-teacher, came into the room for her own sleep. We woke at 8:30, had breakfast and coffee, and embarked on what I thought would be the drive home, yet turned into ANOTHER FULL DAY OF SIGHTSEEING. Mostly, it was more churches, monasteries and museums, but the final site of the day, a monastery called Davit Gareji, made the whole journey worthwhile.

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A cave monastery surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in Georgia and beyond

I was entirely aware of the time when we started driving toward Davit Gareji, a much talked about and well known “place to see” for TLG volunteers like myself. It was already 5 pm when we left the main road, still in Kakheti, 7 hours from home. But I no longer cared what time it was on the hour long journey through rough terrain that led us to the monastery.It was beyond gorgeous!

When we arrived, we hiked far above the monastery and easily killed another hour. The scenery was amazing, and it took all of our energy to admit that we should probably head home. We reached the main road as the sun was going down, and I remembered once again how far we were from home. I clocked our ETA at 1:30 am, which wouldn’t be too bad.

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Sunset through the obligatory cracked marshrutka windshield

We were right on schedule when we got to Tbilisi around 9 pm, but then I heard a teacher tell the marshrutka driver to go to Sameba. Sameba is the Holy Trinity Church in Tbilisi, and literally everyone has been there. Every student, teacher, and myself on the marshrutka had been there. I asked my co-teacher how long, and she said 30 minutes. I found a bathroom and bought a soda, and stayed in the marsh reading, I was ready to be moving toward my bed.

9:30 quickly became 9:50, and we were finally on our way out of Tbilisi. We made it a few kilometers before the boys complained of hunger and we stopped for some “fast food.” When 7 boys order Shaurma, it is no longer fast food. At 11:00 we were finally on the move, when we got, I kid you not, PULLED OVER. Cops are half myth in Georgia, but I guess in the summer they’re more likely to check for marshrutka driver’s papers. As we pulled away from the policeman after 10 minutes, I saw the “You are now leaving Tbilisi” sign ahead.

We got back to the village at 4:00 am.

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

Overall, the excursion was more good than bad. I got to see a lot of Georgian landmarks and scenery that I never would have made it to on my own, spend some time with the students I don’t get to teach, and my co-teacher. My annoyances at time management and being the camera bitch were largely outweighed by the fun times. I might be going on another school excursion later this week, so clearly it didn’t destroy me!

In other news, SCHOOL IS OUT. Now that I’m not teaching, I should be able to catch up on blogging a bit. Coming soon: A post about teaching/my school/students and a post about Georgian food!

Thanks for your patience,

Kacie Riann

Until the Cows Come Home

Sometimes, we use idioms we don’t even understand the origins of. For example, saying “close, but no cigar” comes from an era where cigars were given as prizes for carnival games. Judging by the way tobacco is now demonized in America, it is clear that this phrase is now obsolete, yet it maintains its presence in our vernacular.

The same goes for “let the cat out of the bag,” which references a con used in medieval marketplaces where merchants would claim to sell pigs in a bag, but when opened an overpriced cat would be revealed instead.  We still use this to reprimand people for revealing a secret.

In Georgia, I got to see the origin of an accepted idiom in front of my face: “Until the cows come home.”

The phrase has been used as early as 1829 to mean “for a long but indefinite time.” The first time I noticed the phenomenon was when winter was approaching and the days were getting shorter. I walked from town to my village, chasing the sun so as not to get scolded for walking at night by my worrisome host family, and I realized I was walking with a herd. All of the village cows were mozying toward the village after a long day of grazing. When I got to my gate, my family’s cows were waiting for me to open it for them. The cows had come home.

The village cow migration

The village cow migration

The ironic part, to me, is that the cows come home around dark, which changes with the seasons but is never later than 10 or 11 pm. So when we say, “Let’s party until the cows come home!” we really mean, “Let’s wrap this up before midnight!”

While we’re on the subject of cows, let me share a random anecdote I thought of a few days ago. When I was maybe ten or eleven, my family visited a quaint lodge for a weekend getaway. We purchased massages and creme brulee room service, and culminated our pretend rich people time with a hot air balloon excursion.

On the road from the hotel to the balloon site, we kept our eyes peeled for deer, a constant threat in Washington State for the well-being of our cars. We warned my father of an approaching animal and as we approached we realized it was not a deer, but a cow. My dad hit his brakes, and without words we shared a collective laugh at the pure absurdity of this “wildlife.” I grew up in a small, rural town, but cows were fenced on ranches and farms, not standing nonchalantly in the middle of the street.

If I knew then that cow-in-the-street would one day be more routine to me than car-in-the-street, I wouldn’t have believed it.

–Kacie Riann

The Greater Caucasus

Hello all,

A few weeks back some friends and I decided to check out the REAL mountains of Georgia, known as “the Greater Caucasus.” Don’t get me wrong, the Lesser Caucasus are beautiful, but when I imagined my life in Georgia, I imagined tall peaks that would rival the North Cascades that I had grown up with, and felt instead like I was seeing more of the same.

So, we went to Mestia, the capital of the Svaneti region and one of the most mountainous parts of the country.

The city is famous not only for it's mountains, but for it's ancient watchtowers

The city is famous not only for it’s mountains, but for it’s ancient watchtowers

Getting to Mestia is no small task. The road is long and dangerous, and marshrutka drivers leave very early in the morning from the city of Zugdidi, so an overnight in Zugdidi is required. We found a marginally cheap hotel, booked our 6am pickup for the marshrutka, and spent some time at a bar called Amerikidan, literally “from America.” A former TLG who married a Georgian woman and settled in Zugdidi opened this bar, boasting familiar cocktails, mayonnaise-free pizza with actual mozzarella, and burgers!

 

I went with a Pina Colada, cheese fries, and a chicken sandwich!

I went with a Pina Colada, cheese fries, and a chicken sandwich!

The next morning was rough, to say the least. I spent 20 minutes knocking on hotel room doors, begging my companions to wake up while the marshrutka driver waited outside the hotel at 5:55 am. Eventually, we all made it onto the marsh where almost everyone promptly fell asleep, but I was dying to see what kind of condition this famed “dangerous road” was in, and to spot the first glimpses of the mountains. The road was narrow with frequent rockslides and a few washed out bits where it was unpaved, but for me the scariest part was when we drove through the tunnels. They were unlit, seemed shoddy, and some even leaked impressive streams of water onto the road. Were we driving under a river? Would this end up like that movie “Daylight?”

We saw the remains of this unfortunate accident on the way up, but the truck was gone by the time we drove back down the mountain

We saw the remains of this unfortunate accident on the way up, but the truck was gone by the time we drove back down the mountain

The scenery was worth staying awake for, especially since I got to watch the sun rise, a first for my Georgian experience. The driver was quiet, but sweet. He stopped whenever someone needed to pee and used the opportunity to smoke a cigarette. Most marshrutka drivers will simply crack the window a centimeter and smoke while driving. I appreciated that he didn’t subject us to that on a road that really requires two handed driving.

First snowcapped mountain sighting on the drive up

First snow-capped mountain sighting on the drive up

After the journey, the “city” of Mestia was a welcomed relaxation. We slept away part of the first day, recovering from our early wake up, then ventured into the incredibly small city center. Our guest house provided meals, so it was a pretty low-hassle adventure. The boys took to hiking while the girls took in the scenery at outdoor cafes. We did try our hand at an expedition, however, in the form of climbing one of the 5 story towers.

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I played pioneer and led the way for the girls into the tower. That is Maisah’s reaction to my laughter when I viewed the next level.

Each floor of the tower offered a smaller, narrower, steeper ladder. Sometimes, the top of the ladder was still a few feet from the next floor, leading us to leap up onto our stomachs and worm-crawl to the next level. It was absurd. The final level was a metal ladder, inverted at the top, disconnected from the frame above, it’s bolts long lost in the shuffle. We made it though! And the result was amazing: A sense of accomplishment and an unobstructed view of the mountains I came to see.

Amy at the top of the tower

Amy at the top of the tower

The weekend was great. 4 days with some of my best friends in Georgia, including Amy who I hadn’t seen since our Eurotrip, no agenda, and some lovely snowy mountains. Mestia was small, so we never felt like we should be doing something more productive, but it carried a culture all its own. For one, they speak a different language in Svaneti, known as Svan, and they are so much more cutoff from the rest of Georgia, yet well accustomed to tourism. It felt like a different Georgia.

Sitting at a cafe, enjoying life

Sitting at a cafe, enjoying life

More posts to come friends, I promise!

-Kacie Riann

Middle of Nowhere

Well, readers, I have made it halfway through my total time outside of the U.S.A.

I arrived in Georgia on October 2, and I will return to America toward the end of July. 10 months away from home, and five of them are gone. I alternate on an almost daily basis between “Holy shit, this is never going to end!” and “Vai me! Halfway done already!” Time is a funny thing.

Anyway, I thought I might give some updates on my life at this milestone, now that I have settled into a bit more of a routine and dare I say, adaptation?

Things I am used to:

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Farm animals in the street (I have gotten really good at “hey cow”)

Condemnable buildings (Such as my school and favorite markets, which would have been demolished years ago if we had building codes like the ones at home)

Getting stared at and blatantly talked about in a language I don’t understand (I am generally loved by my community, so I just have to hope they’re saying good things)

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Questionable trash disposal practices (usually burning or throwing into the river)

Extremely personal questions about my marital status, salary, and weight (and the inevitable list of eligible Georgian bachelors that I can marry)

Power outages (A nice time to sit by the candlelight with the host family)

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Grafitti (The blue 41 represents on Georgian political party, the red 5 another)

Political polarity (I moved to Georgia immediately after an election and a majo shift in political power)

Lukewarm showers (It’s better than cold or infrequent showers, or sponge baths or baby wipe showers.)

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The Georgian alphabet (I can read and write it!)

Carbs and Cheese for most meals (I never feel hungry)

Rarely understanding anything (An opportunity to practice my charades skills)

 

Things I may never get used to:

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General lack of care for animal life, even pets (R.I.P. Balma and Josh’s puppy)

The aggressive flirting style of Georgian men (No apparently means maybe)

Constant yelling, even in friendly conversation (It’s really jarring and tense)

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My loft style stairs (I fall down them like once a week in the dark)

Being chased by turkeys while I walk to school (What did I ever do to them?)

Bipolar weather (Crazy storms followed by summer sun)

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Tarragon flavored everything (Although the radioactive green soda is kind of growing on me)

A lack of fruits and vegetables in the winter (I think I have scurvy)

Mosquito attacks (The only thing that is making me dread the coming spring)

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The frequent mood swings of my host brother (He loves me one minute and hates me the next, from hugs to hitting in one fell swoop)

Horrifyingly fast drivers (as the pedestrian it is your responsibility to not get hit)

The lack of planning or schedules (and the lack of communication when changes are made)

 

I think ten months just might not be long enough to get to the “immersion” stage of culture shock. I have already had to get past a lot of things, such as my many food issues, in order to function in Georgian society, but there are certain areas of the culture that I just can’t navigate. A lot of it is gender role related stuff, as Georgia is a very patriarchal culture, and a lot of it is simply my own homesickness creeping in to my every day activities.

So here’s to 5 months down and 5 more to come! I believe I will survive it!

-Kacie Riann

 

Extended Family Time

Hello readers,

This weekend I went to Tbilisi. Normally, I would take the 5 hour marshrutka ride alone, bored out of my mind, and stay at a hostel for the weekend, meeting up with my fellow English teachers and spending most of my monthly stipend in a single weekend on fancy mixed drinks and American food.

This weekend, I rode over with Salome, I stayed with two different extended host family members, I navigated the underground bazaars and spent money only on clothing, because a Georgian will never be the one responsible for letting you go hungry.

And spending time with these little angels was no trouble!

And spending time with these little angels was no trouble!

First, I finally got to meet my little host-cousins, Nini (3) and Anastasia (10 Months). I have seen their photos in my family’s albums and Facebook pages, and now I know why. They’re just so sweet and photogenic! Apparently, I am somewhat of a family celebrity too, because when Salome and I went to Nini’s kindergarten to pick her up, having never met me she screamed “Kacie!” across the room as soon as I walked in the door. It was a nice introduction, though reminiscent of picking my brothers up from daycare, and any memory of them makes me a little sad when I am so far away.

I mean, it's hard not to be reminded of the boys in moments like this...

I mean, it’s hard not to be reminded of the boys in moments like this…

The first night I was feeling a little ill after a particularly nauseating marshrutka ride (though honestly, they’ve all felt that way lately) so we decided to stick close to the apartment. My host-aunt, Tamriko, had some friends down the street who make this amazing round bread and thought I might want to eat some fresh from the “oven.”  I did, and it was even more amazing when it was hot. After giving me a chance to remove the bread from the well-shaped stone oven, a delicate process as it just sticks vertically to the hot walls, they cooked some pork on kebabs and bought a 2 liter Fanta for an impromptu meal. If I ever get rich, I am installing one of these ovens in my home, because not only does it cook bread perfectly, but meat too. I would probably have nightmares about the little girl from The Ring crawling out of it, but it would be worth it.

My sad attempt at being a bread maker... I think i will leave it to the pros.

My sad attempt at being a bread maker… I think i will leave it to the pros.

The next night, after a much needed haircut that only cost me 7 Lari (<$5), it was decided that I needed to do some sightseeing while in Tbilisi. I explained that I had already seen the fortress, but they insisted that everything looked better by night. Now, I am compelled to agree. We started with the infamous fortress, an impossible-to-miss landmark by day when it is not glowing above the city. We rode the gondola to the top, took in a fantastic view of the city lights and the many, many churches of Tbilisi, and walked back down through Old Town. It was very cool at night, partly because I wasn’t absolutely sweating in the sun and fighting the crowds of tourists, but also because of the aesthetic quality.

My tour guides, Aunt Tamriko, Sister Salome, and the Breadman

My tour guides, Aunt Tamriko, Sister Salome, and the Breadman

From the fortress, it’s impossible to miss the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi,  more commonly called “Sameba” which means trinity in Kartuli. I was thrilled when my tour guides decided to take me there as well, as it has been a casualty of time in my previous visits to Tbilisi. Built in 2004 to celebrate 2000 years since the birth of Christ (they were a little tardy due to civil unrest in their nation), Sameba is the third tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world. Day or night, it dominates its surroundings. After a quick cab ride, we were at the gates, which looked decidedly closed. I was disappointed, but after a few words with the guard, one of which was definitely “Amerikeli,” we were granted access. We had the entire complex to ourselves, and were even able to enter the cathedral as several maids mopped the floors of it’s impressive square footage.

I don't think pictures can do justice to how massive this place really is

I don’t think pictures can do justice to how massive this place really is.

We walked back to the city center via the Peace bridge, another light show in the city of Tbilisi, and caught a cab back to Tamriko’s apartment. After a midnight meal of khinkhali, round bread, sausages with mustard (which I almost choked on because it was super hot but I was so excited about mustard that I used way too much), and Coca Cola, we decided to get some sleep for the long journey home the next day.

It was nice to see a different side of Tbilisi with the locals, instead of using the city as an excuse to see other Westerners and eat western food. I’m hoping we will go back for Anastasia’s first Birthday!

-Kacie Riann

2 Holidays, 2 Currencies, 7 Countries, 31 Days

Hello Readers,

I have been back in Georgia for about a week now, and am settling back into village life pretty rapidly. The culture shock returned when I did, but with my grasp on the language and idiosyncrasies of the country, I was able to adjust much more quickly than the first time.

Because my Eurotrip was a month long, I cannot give the detailed play-by-play that I can give about my weekend trips in Georgia, so I am going to post a quick recap of my trip and then get back to what this blog is really about in my next post, which is Sakartvelo!

Barcelona:

Spain, the seaside, and severe financial issues

Spain, the seaside, Sangria, and severe financial issues

The journey started and ended in Barcelona, a city full of interesting architecture, pushy souvenir salesmen, and tapas. My journey did not start smoothly, to say the least. When Amy and I arrived at the airport it was midnight. Neither of us had any Euros to our name, so I decided to pull money out of the first ATM I saw. We were literally in Europe for ten minutes when the bank machine swallowed my debit card without producing any money. I first reacted by falling onto the floor and crying; this went on for a fair amount of time. A nice Spanish girl called the number on the ATM machine for me, but they pretty much told me to cancel my card and that there was nothing they could do. I called Chase, who after encouraging me to update my mailing address informed me that they could not send a new card to me until 30 days after updating a mailing address. Eventually, I managed to get 40 euros from a different ATM with my Georgian debit card, and Amy and I made it to our hostel, where I called my parents on Skype and cried some more. Mom ended up getting me a new debit card in her name, which she mailed to my friend Tina in Austria, where I would eventually end up. Until then, I was being supported by Amy, who I thanked about 5,000 times!

Me and my sugar mama in the Gothic District

Me and my sugar mama in the Gothic District

Once we got over that drama, I was able to really enjoy Barcelona, which had kind of a negative connotation in my family after Jenna survived a particularly traumatic event there. It’s a good city for poor travelers, with about 20 hostels under 10 euros a night, an impressive Bazaar for grocery shopping, and a lot of really cool buildings that you can look at from the outside, for free. The city is famous for places like Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia, both designed by resident architect Gaudi, which were especially cool at night, when they light up and you can’t see the cranes and scaffolding surrounding their perpetual refurbishing.

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One of Gaudi’s most iconic buildings. He was a pretty quirky guy.

 

I was really exhausted by the time we hopped on our 22 hour ferry to Cvitivecchia, Italy, the closest coastal city to Rome. I was happy to have literally nowhere to go during that time. The view was nice too!

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Goodbye Spain, hello Italy!

Rome:

Christmas capitol of the world, perhaps?

Christmas capitol of the world, perhaps?

When deciding where we would spend Christmas, Drew suggested Rome. The city would provide plenty of historical sites to fill our time, and a visit to the Vatican on Christmas day would offer us a rare sight: the Pope! Rome was the first time I really felt like it was Christmas time. Barcelona was too warm, and Georgians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, so they had no decorations by the time I left. The high point was definitely Christmas in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by thousands of people, being blessed by the Pope.

I do wish I could have seen the Popemobile, though

I do wish I could have seen the Popemobile, though

The hardest thing about Rome was probably how expensive everything was. The B&B we stayed at the first night and promptly left the next morning left us on the street buzzing for over an hour, before sleepily letting us in and arguing that we came too late. Too bad their website said “24 hour reception.” I felt like we were overpaying for our next “Bed and Breakfast,” who gave vouchers to a nearby cafe as the “breakfast” which was closed the entire time we were there. On top of that, they provided no guest kitchen for us to fend for ourselves. Each meal seemed like an assault on my (or in this case Amy’s) wallet. I splurged only on a tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but I chose not to buy any souvenirs to help make up some of the costs.

I kept wanting to watch "Gladiator" and "Ben Hur"

I kept wanting to watch “Gladiator”…. and okay, also “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”

Luckily, Rome is a beautiful city, and many of it’s greatest attractions (The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, etc.) are free, if not a bit overcrowded. My fondest memory is the amazing, if fleeting sunset we saw as we crossed the river looking back on St. Peter’s Basilica. The timing was just right to get the sky, reflecting on the water, with a silhouette of the church.

I mean... wow

I mean… wow

Slovenia:

Sunrise over Trieste, Italy from just over the border in Slovenia

Sunrise over Trieste, Italy from just over the border in Slovenia

So this first anecdote actually takes place in Italy, in the border town of Trieste, but as it was part of the journey to Slovenia I lumped it in here. Amy and I departed from Drew in Rome, and continued on towards Slovenia. We took the cheapest train to Trieste, knowing there would be connections from there to Ljubljana. However, when we got to Trieste it was midnight and there were no trains going anywhere, nor was anything in the station open, including the bathrooms. With six hours until the opening of the station, we wandered outside in search of a hostel or internet cafe. We found nothing and the weight of our backpacks inspired us to go back to the train station and try to sleep. The next 5.5 hours were some of the worst of my life. The train station was full of homeless people, stretched out on egg crate foam pads with flannel blankets over them. Amy and I were wearing several layers and “sleeping” on either the cold tile floor or the cold metal bench. I couldn’t sleep for fear that my valuables would be stolen, and I was shivering like my chihuahua during a blizzard. The homeless people literally had it better than we did. Also, I really needed to pee and the bathrooms were closed, and it was far too cold to consider squatting in the alley and thus partially disrobing. We got the hell out of there immediately at 6 am and finally made our way to Ljubljana, where we promptly slept away most of our first day.

We did make it to the holiday festival that night, and saw some of the most amazing Christmas lights I have ever seen

We did make it to the holiday festival that night, and saw some of the most amazing Christmas lights I have ever seen

From Ljubljana we took a day trip to a place I have been itching to visit ever since I first saw a picture of it on The Lonely Planet: Lake Bled. Lake Bled is a fairly small lake nestled in the alps and features a cliffside castle, an island with a church on it, and some of the most beautiful mountains you could ever imagine. The scenery totally lived up to my expectations and I took about 1000 pictures. As you walk the perimeter of the lake, a new view comes into your vision every few feet or so, and it’s hard not to just be in awe of it.

It might be a Chelan thing, but I am kind of a sucker for lakes and mountains

It might be a Chelan thing, but I am kind of a sucker for lakes and mountains

We spent one more day in Ljubljana, a fairly small city with a strange obsession for graffiti and horrifying sculptures. Right next to our hostel, a former prison, there was an outdoor music club that stretched on for several blocks, and it was covered pavement to roof with artistic graffiti and tons of statues and sculptures and weird mannequins. We spent our last day just slowly walking through the complex, an art gallery of sorts, taking in all of the crazy imagery.

I told you they were horrifying

I told you they were horrifying

Graz:

Less about sightseeing and more about partying, NYE in Austria

Less about sightseeing and more about partying, NYE in Austria

Graz was the start of a new game for our Eurotrip. I finally got my debit card, which meant that I would start working off my some 500 euro debt to Amy by playing the sugar mama while she had bank issues of her own (being flagged for fraud because she was in a foreign country.) Instead of hosteling and wearing smelly clothes, we were able to stay with my sister’s best friend Tina and use her washing machine. Also, Graz was quite small, so our instincts to run around trying to “see everything” were replaced with the luxury of going to the clubs until 4 am and then staying in our pajamas the next day. It’s always good to see a friend from home when you’re abroad, and Tina was an excellent host and provided for a memorable New Year’s.

That's her in the shopping cart, and her friend Kaitlyn next to me.

That’s her in the shopping cart, and her friend Kaitlyn next to me.

Don’t worry, we saw all of the four sights in Graz too, which includes 2 castles (Schlossburg and Eggenburg) , a weird architectural sea creature looking thing (the Kuntzhaus), and a big yellow church (Maria Trost). But at almost the halfway mark of our trip, the slower pace of Graz was a welcome treat. Tina knew where all of the good food was and her apartment sits right on the main square downtown, so we could easily access everything without having to wake up at the crack of dawn or run ourselves ragged.

Amy approaches an oddly perched peacock at the Eggenburg Castle

Amy approaches an oddly perched peacock at the Eggenburg Castle

I have previously traveled to Vienna, and I have always found Austria to be a very pleasant country. The people are nice, the language sounds funny, and despite being a euro country, it’s fairly affordable. I was actually able to eat out, even at the gimmicky bridge cafe resting on the river and the famous Sacher Cafe with it’s even more famous cake. I shopped at H&M and Zara. Maybe it was the return of my debit card, but for the first time on the trip I didn’t feel like I was ripping up euros by the hundred, and that was a nice change.

Walking into the gimmicky bridge cafe

Walking into the gimmicky bridge cafe

Prague:

We convinced Tina to come to Prague with us for 24 hours!

We convinced Tina to come to Prague with us for 24 hours!

As you may or may not know, I spent my semester abroad in Prague, so it holds a very special place in my heart. When we were already in Austria and Prague was so close, I knew I could convince Amy to go there, and Tina even joined us for the first night! Prague is a special place, because its definitely European without the poshness that goes along with being European. Still holding onto their currency, the crown, the Czech Republic is quite affordable and the city is so walkable that you can easily explore it aimlessly. I love traveling aimlessly, but as the expert I got to play tour guide this time.

Charles' Bridge and Prague Castle at dawn

Charles’ Bridge and Prague Castle at dawn

Our overnight train came in nice and early and our hostel wasn’t ready for us, so we got the unique experience of seeing Prague in the early morning hours. This worked out well because Tina only had one day, so we really got to maximize our wandering. We saw the lesser quarter, the bridge, and Old Town, took a nap, then saw New Town and the Dancing House. I fed them Smazeny Syr and we covered a lot of ground. Then we decided to do a pub crawl to cap off our partying ways with Tina. The pub crawl ended at Karlovy Lazne, a famous club in Prague that has 5 stories with 5 distinct atmospheres and music styles. It was a great night, and a late night!

A blurry photo in our pub crawl shirts, that seems fitting!

A blurry photo in our pub crawl shirts, that seems fitting!

The next day Amy and I dropped Tina off at the train station. We continued our sightseeing, visiting some of my favorite spots, walking through the castle, paying homage to my old dorm and my school, and going to my favorite English speaking cafe (The Globe) for Happy Hour and trivia night with some of our friends from Georgia who were coincidentally in Prague at the same time. It was really great to share some of our weirder Georgia experiences with people who understood us, rather than trying to explain this country to hostelers who think we live in Atlanta. Also, we lost horribly at trivia but I did win a bonus round and a copy of Dirty Dancing because I knew the names of the actors in Breaking Bad. So, hooray Breaking Bad!

Mitch, Amy, Heather, Brett and I at trivia, repping Sakartvelo!

Mitch, Amy, Heather, Brett and I at trivia, repping Sakartvelo!

Paris:

This was one of about 200 pictures I took featuring the Eiffel Tower

This was one of about 200 pictures I took featuring the Eiffel Tower

Paris was our final destination, besides the two days we spent in Barcelona en route to Tbilisi, doing nothing but buying gifts for our host families and eating the last of our variety of cheeses before returning to Georgia. I was trying not to let my exhaustion show, but I was nursing a cold and we had been backpacking for 25 days at this point, so I was a bit tired. Our first day was spent in the Montmartre District, near our hostel and the Sacre Ceour. I was elated to see a “Monsieur Chat” graffiti, as Paris was the birthplace of M. Chat. I was less elated about the amount of stairs we climbed to get to the Sacre Ceour, perched high above the city. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth the climb!

I'm trying not to look like I'm panting...

I’m trying not to look like I’m panting…

The next day we took a tour of the Eiffel district, which started in Concorde Square and ended, you guessed it, at the Eiffel Tower. The tour was really well done, the tour guide was easy on the eyes, and the weather was decent for mid January. However, there was a bit of a downside: we chose to do the tour on the day of a massive protest against gay marriage. Not only was it difficult to walk without either moving against a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people, or looking like you’re one of them (I’m not), but a lot of our views were obstructed by the many giant buses that brought people from the provinces for the protest. It was also just disheartening to see so many people on the wrong side of history. I don’t want to get political here, but suffice it to say I was not cheering along with them.

Here is the amassed crowd from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower

Here is the amassed crowd from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower

On our final day we explored the other main sights: Notre Dame, The Louvre, The Arc de Triomphe. I definitely thought Paris was beautiful, but I failed to grasp the obsession that seems to come from Paris. I mean books, movies, and TV shows would have you believe that it’s the greatest city of all time and that nobody can resist its charms, but I found the waiters rude and pretentious, the hostels overpriced and the food to be average for a European city. Maybe I am missing something, or maybe Prague is just a tough act to follow.

Although I do have a desire to re-read "The Da Vinci Code"

Although I do have a desire to re-read “The Da Vinci Code”

Back in Georgia:

So, I made it back to my village and honestly, it really does feel like I came home. I mean, two of the highlights of my vacation were trivia with the fellow English teachers and recognizing Georgian on the metro in Paris, so obviously this country has a place in my heart. I had an amazing trip, but it feels good to be back.

-Kacie Riann

P.S. Sorry this is so long! If you made it this far, I applaud you!

Goodbye Saqartvelo! (For a Month)

Hello my lovely readers,

I just spent the last few hours preparing for my upcoming vacation. I washed all of my wool socks because, stupidly, I chose to travel to a region not much warmer than the one I am in. I put my contacts in after a month of wearing glasses. I poorly packed my smaller suitcase, which will be transferred to a newly purchased travel backpack when I get to Tbilisi tomorrow.

So where am I headed?

Because I felt like it

Because I felt like it

If things had gone differently, I might have been going home. The more information that comes out, the more I realize how lucky I am to have been extended. Recruitment is closed until July 2013, TLG’s budget has been cut dramatically, only teachers in the villages were renewed, and only about a fourth of the people who requested an extension were approved. Yikes!

My assumption is that TLG, when it begins recruiting again, will require more certifications or education from the applicants, will ask them to sign longer contracts, and will likely do away with the vacation flight entirely. However, I am still eligible for said flight, meaning that this Sunday I will be headed to Barcelona, Spain with my friends Amy and Drew. I fly into Barcelona around midnight Sunday night, and I fly back from there to Tbilisi on January 18. All that time in the middle is pretty unplanned, just how I like it. The only sure-thing is that we will spend Christmas in Rome, Italy

You can go, without tickets, to see the Pope on Christmas Day!

You can go, without tickets, to see the Pope on Christmas Day!

On December 26, Drew will fly back to Tbilisi and it will be just us girls. I know we will end up in Graz, Austria to visit my sister’s best friend Tina, but otherwise everything is completely unknown. I am happy to just play things by ear and see what happens.

I fully intend to keep blogging while I am away, but posts might be infrequent/brief/outdated for the next month or so. I will be back in Georgia for my first day of school on Jan. 21, so you can expect more Georgia related posts after that point.

Happy Holidays readers! I hope you enjoy your vacations, family time, and traditions. I know I will enjoy Western Europe!

-Kacie Riann

A Weekend in Bizarre Batumi

Hello Readers!

Last weekend I took a little vacation to a city called Batumi, the third largest city in Georgia and the most popular seaside destination.

Only a two hour marshutka ride from my town, which is too small for this map!

In a way, Batumi can compare to Tbilisi, in that it is an odd mashup of historic old buildings and futuristic new architecture. However, the location and climate add a tropical element to the already confused atmosphere. Batumi has been called “The Vegas of the Black Sea” and this is a fairly accurate depiction. Yes, there are casinos in every hotel, but there is also a flashiness in the buildings and an anything goes attitude.

The building on the left is called “The alphabet tower” and has a nightclub inside the disco ball looking thing. The building on the right actually has a 5 capsule ferris wheel built into the “hole” on the opposite side.

I spent three days in Batumi, and save for a day trip to the botanical gardens (which is worth it just to get some of the best views of the city and sea) I was perfectly content to just walk the boardwalk, plop down on the rocky beach with a beverage, or bar hop around the city center. It’s a fairly small city, and it’s so visually bizarre that you never feel like you are missing out on any “sights.”

City skyline from the botanical gardens. Do you recognize those two shapes between the trees?

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with some of my fellow volunteers who I haven’t seen since orientation. I was able to start some serious planning on my Christmas vacation destination as well as swap stories with volunteers in villages, cities, and various locations within Georgia. I felt lucky to have ended up in a rural location, where all my food is fresh and my family and community is thrilled to have me. I may feel a little trapped or bored sometimes, but it could definitely be worse. I haven’t even gotten food poisoning yet!

Swimming in the Black Sea. I look freaked out because I just narrowly avoided a giant jellyfish

Possibly the strangest thing was that despite the weather being a humid 75 degrees F and clear, everyone kept insisting that summer was over. My host sister told me Batumi wouldn’t be as good since it is not summer, and lots of things were closed for the “off-season.” I know summer technically ends in September, but it was so beautiful! I swam without cringing and everything!

All in all, I loved Batumi and will most definitely be back. Even in the winter!

-Kacie Riann

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