Friday, July 05, 2013

5 July 2013: Fajitas and Jazz in Tbilisi

5 July 2013

I am a student in the George Mason University Masters of Global Affairs Program.  One program requirement is to choose a specialization among conflict and security, global health, global economics, global governance, global education, etc. Another program requirement is to take GLOA 710, a course that is given annually during the summer and is always a two-week study abroad.  Two years ago GLOA 710 was held in China and last year it was in Argentina.  A student may choose to attend whichever summer he or she wishes before graduating from the program.  I was in Amman last summer and may (who knows?) be moving abroad in 2014, so I figured it would make the best sense to enroll in GLOA 710 this summer.  The fact that it would take place in Eastern Europe was, for me, and added bonus.

The program schedule has featured lectures on various topics.  While they have been largely focused on conflict and security issues, we have been treated to several lectures and tours on Georgian culture.  Today, our second-to-last day, we learned about Georgian film and Georgian public health. 

We went directly to the Georgian National Film Center this morning.  We learned about the history, funding, and goals of the Georgian film industry.  The industry is small but partners with various European film markets and forums.  Georgian films are not "commercial"; they are almost exclusively artistic and cultural.  Our lecturer assured us that Georgian films (which cost between 5-600,000 USD to make!!) are always dramatic and heavy.  That matches my impression of the two Georgian movies I have seen--"Repentance" and "Street Days."  "Street Days" dealt with a grave topic (drug addiction) but was fast-paced and, at times, humorous.  The lecture included the names of several successful films released during 2012-3 and so I hope to watch and judge them for myself. 

As it happens, Thea's professional background is in film and as the assistant dean of a department in a local university she used to write film critiques.  She no longer writes reviews, however, because she is tired of feeling constrained by the Georgian tradition of politeness.  Since everyone knows each other in Georgia, it is unthinkable to actually publicly critique each other.  Thea gave as an example a 2010 Georgian film whose name I just omitted.  She did not enjoy the movie and was unable to critique it because the daughter of the director goes to her daughter Liza's school!  To emphasize her point she pulled out her mobile phone and showed us a picture of the director' daughter sitting at the very table at which we were sitting.  (Furthermore, in my original publication of this post I included the name of the film and its link in IMDB; however over breakfast this morning Thea, who read my blog earlier, asked me to take the name of the film out of the post, for fear the director might google it and come across this post and her name). Thea, and her friends with whom we had this conversation, seemed to think it a shame that Georgians are culturally bound to politeness but I find that charming.  I am not sure how far Americans' sense of entitlement to rudeness has gotten us.

Our second lecture of the day was on public health in Georgia.  Among the particular public health challenges Georgia faces, one that interests me is the relatively high infant mortality rate. Our lecturer assured us that all pregnant Georgian women receive prenatal care and are attended by trained OBs at deliver and yet more babies die at birth than are expected.  Possibly the quantity of care is low?

As an American, I was not surprised by the politicized nature of the Georgian health care system.  Health care privatized in Georgia with the Rose Revolution and the conservative Sakaashvili's rise power, with only the poorest receiving government assistance with premiums. The system is becoming more universal and socialist under Ivanshivili's government.

A final point of interest is Georgia's health care policy for immigrants: it has none.  Immigrants must pay for private insurance.  I intend to contact our lecturer again via email and ask for information--if it exists--on Egyptian immigrants and health care.  Do they purchase insurance or pay for care out of pocket?  Out of curiosity I will want to find out what options immigrants to America have for health care?  I am woefully ignorant on this topic.

While our lectures were interesting I must admit that the best part of my day began after class.  We met Thea at a large grocery store not far from our lecture and we shopped for the indigents to a meal we planned to cook for Thea and her friends.  While returning to Thea's apartment after shopping, Thea seemingly spontaneously put in a CD of music by her friend, Tamta.  The moment I heard her voice I knew I needed to know more about her because my husband would most definitely LOVE a copy of her CD.  (Nate LOVES jazzy female singers).  I examined the CD cover and insert closely and resolved to ask Thea later how I could get my own copy.

We arrived at Thea's and she left us to go up to her flat alone while she and Liza made a quick errand down the street.  When we stepped out of the elevator on the 7th floor we saw standing in front of Thea's flat none other than the singer--Tamta!  Ha!  It turns out Thea had invited her to our soirée tonight and decided to surprise us.  And surprised we were!

After inductions, Kristin and I sent Thea off to relax and chat with Tamta while we got to work making fajitas, tortillas, cookies and peach crisp from scratch.  It took over two hours!  We were joined by Georgi, Nino, and Eka and soon the kitchen was full and we cooked and talked politics as fast as we could.  

Finally, all was ready but before dining we took a break and had a concert.  As it happens, Tamta and Nino are both from Abkhazia and childhood friends.  Tamta is obviously a musician but her mother is, too, and she was Nino's piano teacher.  Nino mentioned to me that her dream is to study/teach piano theory but I had no idea she is such a natural at the piano. Tamta and Nino claimed to not have performed together "in years" and yet they whipped out number after number.  Nino would begin each number hesitantly at first...feeling out the intro to the song...and then play the whole thing beautifully as though she had the music right in front of her.  Needless to say, both Nino and Tamta performed beautifully and with grace without a single sheet of music, song after song.  English, Georgian, French, Russian--most of it jazz but a classical number or two thrown into the mix.  Watch her here: .  Nino and Tanta are amazing!  As I sat, listening to their gorgeous sound, I felt, for the millionth time, how blessed I am to have this experience of coming to Georgia and getting to know her people.

Thea and her friends have known each other for years.  During the dark days of the mid-1990s they would gather at Thea's old apartment in the city center, because hers was the only one among all their flats that had electricity, and huddle together for warmth during the winters.  They huddled under umbrellas because the roof leaked.  They sang, talked, exchanged ideas--a regular salon.  On any given day she had at least ten fellow university students with her there under her leaking roof.  Sitting with this group of best of friends, 15 years later, was a true honor.  I am grateful Thea opened her life to us during these two short weeks.  And it is almost over!  Tomorrow is our last full day.

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