Friday, January 29, 2010

Arajalla/ Azeri School

Notes on Arajalla: Part 1

January 26, 2010

I’ll split my thoughts about the next school into two parts so the post doesn’t become too long.

We left the main road between Tblisi and Rustavi, turning eastward across a very flat plain that held scattered flocks of grazing sheep. In several miles we came to the Azeri village of Arajalla. The unmarked streets were unpaved allies and closely flanked by the walls of houses and yards. Blue metal gates indicated where courtyards existed.

Perhaps in Italy or Greece these narrow, rural alleys would have had charm. And perhaps on a mild fall day they would have appeared inviting. But, on this day, I found no invitation from the scene.

The school we were visiting

appeared isolated in a field beyond the walls of the yards and houses—a lonely and unkempt structure.

In some ways, this school seems prototypical of the Georgian school—a concrete square in layout, three stories, hipped roof. Georgia has over the last decade seen a huge decline in students from what once was about 900,000 students to 600,000 (check on this). Consequently, many of these schools, like this one, have few students. This one has 197 students according to the principal. There are 32 teachers.

The picture below is taken in the staff room, the only warm room in the school. It is warm because an old leaky wood stove is burning briskly. The women first on the left are Nano and Rita and then an English teacher who wishes to do an exchange in the US then the principal and then me. The men that you can make out are Azeris. The women are Georgian.

This picture was taken a little after 1. There are no children as they have gone home for the day. School starts at 8:30 and ends around 1:30 although this day it had already ended. Most of these teachers are paid for 18 hours a week (less than 4 hours of paid time per day). For this they are paid 18 lari an hour (324 lari). So they make about $190 a week.

The school has more problems than the principal could articulate or that I could understand. She proudly showed us her computer lab, a room on the northeast side of the building. Strong winds were sending drafts of cold air through this room. It did, as did all the classrooms, have a rickety wood stove that would heat it when students were using it.

This is a picture of Nano and myself pretending to warm our hands. Sadly, there is no connection to the internet and there is barely any educational software for teachers to use with these computers.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Tuesday, Rita Prokopenko, Nata and her brother Giorgi, and a teacher named Cristy took me first to School Number 11 in Rustavi, a town southeast of Tblisi packed with Soviet style high rise buildings. Huge apartment complexes. School 11 was described as one of the better academic schools in Georgia. The principal's name is Giorgi Shkiles (not sure about last name). We were greeted by two female teachers wearing huge fur coats. The picture in front of school #11 shows Cristy, also wearing a huge fur coat. In fact, everyone I saw in the building was wearing a coat. It was cool in the building and after we sat conversing for about an hour and a half, I was cold. This was nothing to what I would experience next.
#11 is a K-12 school of about 556 students who walk to the school from this neighborhood. This is a pattern all over Georgia--to have schools located so that students can walk to them. I am told there are 2400 schools in the country. #11 has about 153 high school students, 207 middle school students, and 196 primary students. There were 43 teachers. The high school curriculum consists of history, Georgian, math, Russian or English, Geography, Physics/Chemistry/ Biology, Art, and Public Education (means law and government). I think they also have a computer class but this was not mentioned. It opened in 1952. It has not been cared for in terms of maintenance the way a school in Lincoln might be. (or might not be). Wood floors upon entrance hadn't been sanded or sealed in a long time. Paint chipping on the walls in some places. But the principal's office was very nice.

In it was a large oil painting of a romantic Georgian classic couple--a cossack soldier and a lovely maiden in what I imagined to be a tearful and heartrending departure scene. He has a shelf full of dimmuitve icons and religious images. It was clean, nicely neat. Several working telephone and a cell phone and computer. And a heater.
Gio as he wanted to be called had been a principal for five years. He had been a teacher of history in the school and then when the new reforms took over, he ran for the principalship against two others who were outsiders. He won, I suspect very handily as he was a very personal and charismatic individual, clearly liked by the teachers that joined us.

I learned quite a bit from this conversation that will show up elsewhere. It is a good school with high numbers graduating at a level 3 success rate and many going on to the university.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kitchen Sink

When I arrived at the apartment, the apparatus that screens the flow of water from the kitchen faucet was malfunctioning. Thus, in the morning when I first turned on the hot water, air in the system would cause the water to spray all over the place including yours truly. So, for some time I have been searching for that little piece of equipment one screws into a faucet to control the flow of water. The picture is of the store where I finally found it. There are no Menards or Ace Hardware stores around that I could discover.

And right next to this little shop was a Russian family selling roast coffee. Bought some coffee beans as well and had this fellow grind them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Produce stands and cacaphony

I had a good meeting with Nino Zhvania today and learned many things about Georgian education that I did not know.

These are pictures of produce stands all on one intersection near where I live. There are hundreds of these in this part of the city--little holes in the wall where local entrepreneurs sell wonderful apples, zucchini, mandarin oranges, potatoes, leeks, parsley, coriander, etc. Produce shelves are right on the sidewalk, sometimes taking up so much space they force the pedestrian into the street. This fact inspired a conversation with a man who works at the Ministry of Agriculture about Georgia and America's different form of capitalism. I said in Lincoln we would never permit a small time produce seller to take up public space on a sidewalk to sell stuff. City codes of all sorts would not permit. He wasn't surprised at this. In Georgia he said this was the custom and it was okay. Clearly is okay. So, I get pushed into the streets and have to keep a wary eye out for autos speeding toward me. Where lie the benefits and the competing claims of people? For me, I get good fresh fruit that is recycled daily--no cold storage for these businesses. They make a living. Less government regulation. Less safety. Hard to find the balance between these kinds of competing systems.

Cacaphony--last night I awoke slowly from a sound sleep about 1. There was this steady rising sound coming from the street outside my window. I tried to ignore it but eventually it was just too loud and too angry. So I got up. Outside at a very particularly hazardous and blind intersection of very narrow streets was a huge melee. Looked like two cars had had an accident and there must have been over 30 mainly men and a few women just screaming at each other. In America I guess this would have to be akin to a small riot. Maybe this thing goes on at bars in Lincoln some time when a bunch of people get into a row. In due time seven police cars came screeching up--skidding to a stop inches from the gawking pedestrians and combatants. I was amazed that no one was struck.

Georgian I think prize their cars and clearly there was ample insult to animate the participants--for close to an hour. Finally the police must have taken away the loudest of the loud because the mob dispersed.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

English Language Center

English Language Center

I went to visit my first NGO yesterday. Georgia is full of small institutions referred to as non government organizations that perform many of the functions that in the west are done by government—education, policy work, social services, health related services and the like. Rita Prokopenko has studied with us at the university in Lincoln and is becoming a frequent visitor to Lincoln with small groups of students from her school. I met some of the students who will travel with her to Lincoln in May. I asked one of them if he would write a guest blog entry so sometime in the next several weeks you will hear from Nika Kubardianika. I think I have his name reasonably right. I still struggle a bit with Georgian names.

I am including a couple of pictures of Rita’s school. Some of you may recognize Taka, the young woman who joined the CEHS dance class and taught people a Georgian folk dance.

I am interested in this school. Rita has developed it as a institution that helps IDPs in Georgia. IDPs are “internally displaced persons). These are those who have been victims of struggles within Georgia. Various conflicts have resulted in many dislocations with consequent problems. Learning English is one of the very important tools young Georgians, particularly IDPs, have for improving their life chances. When Nika writes about his own experiences in the school, you and I will learn more.

Man in the Panther Skin

I was introduced last night to Georgia's great epic poem by Shota Rustaveli called the Man in the Panther Skin. You can Google it under the poet's name. It is inpsiring narrative. If I can attach it to the blog, I well.

Here is the web address:


Monday, January 18, 2010


Mtskheta is a small village about 15 kilometers to the west of Tblisi. Rita Prokopenko and friends took me to see a dramatically located monastery from about 600 A.D. remarkable for its stone work and its condition. It sits high above the confluence of the two rivers pictured--the Aragvi and the Mtkvari. We toured the monastery in a steady cold rain. Then we visited a much larger and younger cathedral in town (not pictured). We had a bit of soup and red wine in an frame looking buildings are in fact little rooms with a table, chairs and a fireplace at a resort called Salobia, famous for its Georgian lobia soup (made with kidney beans)(excellent). In mid afternoon we returned to Tblisi and visit the enormous Mtketi orthodox cathedral that sits on a hill looking down on the city.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lessons from Dumpsters

Trash—Lessons from dumpsters

Perhaps how a society rids itself (or does not) of its trash must say something about its civic nature. Kartvelia(s) (Georgians and I probably have the transliteration wrong as I don’t yet know how to form the plural of a formal Georgian nouns) place these mini dumpsters throughout the neighborhood where I am staying. Here is a picture of how they look.

The city visits these dumpsters seemingly daily because I have yet to see one overflow. In contrast, I think of a dumpster out in Wilderness Park where Sarah and I sometimes walk Scout that is usually overflowing from the trash of Lincolnites who use it for free disposal. Free riders in our capitalistic economic system. Or the dumpsters in Estes Park, CO that are locked so that the summer tourists (like us) have to search for some way to dispose of trash, else, the Estes Park city bureaucrats must reason, they would overflow.

So, in Tblisi, the city provides for trash removal. I do not know how this service is supported. I see people use it in the morning, walking to a dumpster with a yellow plastic bag tied neatly up. Plastic is everywhere. The local Popoli where I sometimes buy groceries loads a shopper up with many plastic bags. I am starting to use my backpack when I shop and this draws a few stares. I know I am an odd object of interest since I am clearly not blending in. For one thing, I need a pair of black chinos or cargo pants and a pair of black shoes. My LL Bean boots do not speak Georgian.

Back to trash. I wonder about our Lincoln (and somewhat American) practice of contracting what might be seen as a civic function to private garbage collectors as we do in Lincoln. I believe Lincoln has a law that requires that Sarah and I buy a weekly garbage collection service. At any rate we do. So this is constitutes a public law that requires that as individuals we buy a private service. In a voluntary way we buy a service that recycles a good part of our refuse stream. Or, the service advertises that it recycles waste. I’m not sure what really happens to the mountain of catalogues and advertisements that the postman crams into our mailbox. As the earth heats up, will our city council pass a law that says we have to buy the private services of a re-cycler as we now do a garbage company. And, of course a large part of our re-cycling consists of these unwanted solicitations from private business through out publicly supported postal system. In Georgia, there is no reliable mail service, I am told. Some basic monetary exchanges like paying utility bills is apparently done through a store front place that handles such matters. I haven’t figured it out yet. Am I seeing an example of the difference between an Eastern European quasi-socialist country and one of the world’s most extreme form of capitalism? Different systems, that is for sure.

I also have to recall how frustrating it was to live in Israel whenever one had to deal with a public agency--very indifferent to a person's need and very arrogant by and large. I anticipate some sort of rude awakening here in Georgia about the way that public bureaucracy functions.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

This is a tower that typifies the structure a Georgian family would build to escape to when threatened by marauders. Such structures were typically located high on a hill top. Plenty of hill tops about.

This picture below is of the hiking trail we found high above the city.

This is a picture of the Czars palace in downtown Tblisi. A very imposing structure. I am not sure what it is used for but I think I understood it is used to house various social welfare agencies.

This is a picture looking out a window in one of the Ethnographic Georgian houses.

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Monday, January 11, 2010


Garmajoba. Rogara hart? (Hello, how are you?)
Today, Monday, January 11, 2010, after my eyes just couldn’t take any more computer time or Georgian language study, I walked down to a place called Prospero’s book store. I had in mind trying to see if I could find some kind of a book about hiking trails in and around Tblisi.
I descend to a main thoroughfare called Rustaveli Avenue. It has other names too depending upon which stretch of the avenue one is on. But this designation suffices for my purpose here. It is a wide avenue. Two lanes in each direction. Full of cars rushing to and fro. And the sidewalks are wide as well. So wide that people use the sidewalks to park on. Cars are willy-nilly everywhere in Tblisi. I enter Rustaveli from the relative quiet of a side street into the torrent of activity that sweeps one along. I am on my way to a coffee house and a cup of java.
Prospero’s is owned by an American and is set up as an English language spot. The barista speaks a bit of English and remembered me from when I was there with Nino several days ago. The coffee is as good as I could find in Lincoln. Maybe better. I think I paid 3 lari for an Americana (one shot). That is less than two dollars. This is a hangout for English speaking families as several mothers are there with their pre-school aged children reading children’s books loudly to their brood. Even with the mothers prattle, it is quiet and peaceful and a good place to go.
To get to Prospero’s one enters what was once a courtyard, now built up with buildings that house the cafĂ© and bookstore. It has a private feel to it. I didn’t find any book I wanted to buy right now. There were several small cookbooks on Georgian cuisine. Even though much of the contents are about meat, I’ll probably buy one just for the recipes on how they use nuts and cilantro in creative ways with all sorts of veggies. I’ve already tried the recipe for eggplant with walnuts and it is terrific. And there were some books about recent politics in Georgia that I might buy. Some were very critical of Russia and Russia’s treatment of Georgians.
I didn’t stay long. It was the street scene that interested me. At 4-5 in the afternoon, the sidewalks are full of men and women in their late teens, twenties, thirties. The uniform is this: the women wear tight black pants, knee length black heeled boots, and black fitted coats. Almost without exception. The men wear black shoes, black pants and black coats. Almost without exception. The occasional woman or men walking in attire that is colorful stands out like a dazzling poppy in a field of black poppies. Me, I have on my running shoes, brown trousers, and a black down jacket so I guess I pretty much fit in. Although the running shoes are a give away that there goes a non- Georgian. I am not sure what it is about a society that compels such uniform dress in its young. I guess there is something tribal going on.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Turtle Lake and Kinkali

Nino meet me at about 10:30 on Sunday--about 11 p.m. Lincoln time. The temperature was in the 40s. We walked down hill from my apartment through a maize of winding streets almost to the river which divides the city. Tblisi is very hilly. Think San Francisco but with bigger and longer descents and climbs. Think Telegraph Hill and Maiden Lane with a thousand more steps.

We took a bus around to Vake Park, across from the building where I am pictured. From there we climbed up and up and up toward a place called Turtle Lake (the lake you can see in the landscape shot). On the way we stopped at an ethnographic village (I can't explain the title) and looked at old Georgian houses. It would be a bit like any number of living history museums we could find in the US. I have slides of this--too many to load. I have not yet figured out a way to put a large number of slides on to this blog.
Suggestions from you blogging experts very welcome.

We went on to this public resort--bit like Mahoney Park with a restaurant (closed), a beach with slides and such for swimming (lake had a thin sheen of ice on it), and lots of people walking. We didn't see other people walking the roadway to this lake but we saw many cars. And we were passed going and coming by runners--everyone of them a male. Bit like the training you can see going on by bikers in Colorado during the summer--pump your way to the top and have a gambol for the way down.

I'll post a few more photos of this climb above the lake. The views were dramatic.

Afterwards we got a ride a guy in a brand new Mercedes RV, the big one that looks like a safari wagon. He wove his way down the mountainside and then through the heavy city traffic like it was a gentle slalom run. He turned out to be a general in the Georgian army just doing a good deed giving a couple of strangers a life.

Then we ate kinkali at a busy, loud and popular restaurant. I leave it to you to find out what Kinkali is. It was good.



Meeting at Ilia State University
One of my purposes here is to teach research design and methods to graduate students in education. I think I’ll probably end up doing that but it is yet unclear to me how this is to happen. On Friday I met Siko Janashia and we took a taxi to the university where is office is. Below is a picture of me in front of Siko’s building.

I want to find out more about this building. I was told that it the Soviet Russians used it in the 20s and 30s as a military building. It is massive with long corridors that echo and walls chipped and unadorned. The lighting is sparse even in the office spaces I saw. But old un-maintained wood floors suggest it was something more splendid. Siko’s office is also baren but he has wireless and a large space.

There is so much to learn. What I thought was to be Ilia Chavchavadze State University has a new name: Ilia State University (ISU). Siko told me that two weeks ago it was decided to rename the institution. There are too many places in Georgia called Chavchavadze and the deciders (not clear to me who these are yet) felt that branding required something more distinctive. Siko also said that it was felt the word Chavchavadze was too difficult for westerners to pronounce. Turns out there are a large number of invited faculty who teach at ISU. These come from many European countries with pay from many different sources.

I also learned—listen up you faculty members who read this—that some serious restructuring just took place. Academic departments no longer exist. Instead, all are lumped into undergraduate and graduate units with academic foci in the sciences or humanitarian fields (sociology, anthropology, languages, and education). Education is the most popular followed by language study—I think. In addition, separate research institutes have been formed. Faculty members have to apply to be in these institutes but it sounded like anyone who wants to be is. Reminded me of the effort a year ago to have faculty at UNL designate whether or not they wished to defined as research active with the corresponding obligations to publish attached to such an assignment. I was unable to learn how dramatic an impact this has had on the faculty. My guess is that it was not much but it seemed like a dramatic change to me.

I am going to do a talk for the faculty on distance education and how we have developed this part of our practice at UNL. They are possibly interested in expanding their ability to teach courses at a distance.

Should be interesting.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Cell Phone and Contrasts

Nino Zhvania, a young woman with a degree from the University of Nebraska, and a former student of mine, helped me with the loan of a cell phone. To register this phone and buy some time on it, we went to a very modern building on the busiest street (I think) in Tiblisi. The phone company is called Magti—you can probably google it if you so wish.
There in this very clean, tiled place I got a contract for a cell phone—a debit type deal. For 10 lari I get what I am promised is a lot of time. A lari is the equivalent of about $1.70 although it fluctuates. I am charged about 10 cents a minute to send and receive calls. The picture is of the attractive and competent sales person who sold me this contract. I am wondering if the public spaces in Georgia have a very different character than the private ones. Perhaps there is some large economic lesson here. But the very few private enterprises I have seen appear very efficient and modern while the public spaces appear as if from another time. I wonder if this possible pattern will also be observed in education, i.e. that education as a private and public good will show a similar difference between the public and the private.
Later I was driven about by Natia and Maia (landlady’s daughter and landlady). They took me by a confectionary and patisserie where they had purchased the box of samples they brought to me earlier. Sweet and fattening and delicious. And more importantly they showed me a small storefront where I can get fresh veggies. If the group at this little market there cooperates, I’ll post a picture after I have established a reputation as a regular. Every little grocery shop/stall/store into which I poked my head over the past two days seems to have multiple people waiting to sell me something—even if the store is just a small 12 x 12 room.
I am not sure how to describe the experience of being driven about the streets of Vera (the area where I am living). Many of the intersections are blind. Cars pull out from blind allies. Little is predictable as cars weave about to avoid pot holes and stop suddenly as if an arresting thought had struck the driver motionless. But, Georgians don’t drive at a reckless speed so they generally seem to be able to avoid each other. Automobile brake pads must be a good business in this country however.
“Georgians are a nervous people,” Natia Mrashvili told me(on the matter of her not stopping in the middle of an intersection when I asked if I should exit the car there). She meant by this that I would create a commotion—a cacophony of horns honking.
I saw what appears to be an upscale avenue around Tiblisi State University and Ilia Chavchavdze University. I’ll go there tomorrow I think.

Monday, January 4, 2010


This morning I am up early as will probably be the case for some time. My inner clock has yet to set itself to the Georgian time scheme. In fact, I was surprised yesterday after my arrival that it didn’t get light until about eight o’clock. My friend and former student Nino met me at the airport. Luggage arrived as it was supposed to. Lufthansa did me well. The Munich airport wait was too long. Flights—8.5 from Chicago to Munich; 3 hours on to Tiblisi.
I spend a good part of the morning unpacking and finding places for things. The apartment is large. You enter it up a dingy set of stairs to a third level. It is not a secure building as we might find in the states with a lock on the street side. But, the door itself seems secure. It took me only an hour or so to short out a circuit and half the apartment was dark. Later I found the circuit breaker panel and was able to turn the lights back on.
It would be easy to find plenty of moody black and white photos in this neighborhood I am in on a soggy, rainy day. The streets are narrow. The sidewalks are there on some blocks and not on others. This part of town is quite hilly. My young Fulbright friends tell me that on icy days it is difficult walking the streets in this area because it is so slippery. Cobblestones are tough to navigate on foot. And these are good sized cobblestones creating plenty of opportunity for twisted ankles. Cars have the right of way and lurch around corners in unpredictable ways. I found a grocery store only a block away called Populi. No English there. But, by reading the labels and guessing somewhat intelligently, one can find what one needs. Or a close approximation.
After traveling for so long, I had hoped for a shower. Not to be had until the water came on at 7. Then it was scalding hot as is the water in the kitchen sink. I will try to find out how to turn it down.
Last night Maia the landlady and her daughter Natia came by and we got the internet working and made plans for today. Cell phone, a place where they sell good veggies, and possibly someone who would like to make some money as a driver for me.
The photo is of a city landmark. Mtatsminda is a mountain that rises above my apartment. On its top is this brilliantly lit tower. It is quite beautiful when the rain clouds stream by it. I suspect I will take more pictures of this as it is a striking feature.