Thursday, November 27, 2008 – in transition to the USA!

I was curled up in a Starbucks lounge chair at the Istanbul airport when I was rudely awaken by a strange man sitting next to me offering to buy me coffee. When I told him I didn’t want coffee he continued talking to me in his broken English, asking if I was traveling somewhere. I thought to myself what a dumb question! Why else would I be sleeping at the Starbucks in the Istanbul airport with at least a dozen other people who were doing the same? When I turned around in my chair to give him the hint that I wasn’t interested in talking and would rather sleep, he insisted that he pull over another lounge chair in front of me so I could stretch out my legs instead of being curled up in one chair. I told him I didn’t need another chair and I was just fine the way I was and then I closed my eyes hoping this would deter him from trying to have another conversation with me. He finally got the hint and left after probably five minutes of staring at the back of me. What a weirdo!

At 4am I left Starbucks to check the monitor for departing flights and I was starting to get a little concerned because I didn’t see any Iberia flights on the schedule. Before Gokhan dropped me off he asked which airport I was flying out of and I assumed I would be flying out of the one I flew into from Tbilisi (and where I had paid to store my luggage). So when I didn’t see any Iberia flights listed I started to worry and immediately went to the information desk to find out. Praise God I was at the right location! I think I would have had a mini panic attack if I had to go to another airport with all of my luggage!

After getting my things from the locker storage I went upstairs to wait for the Iberia flight to be listed on the monitor so I could check in. Over an hour and a half later I was boarding the plane to Madrid (my final connection to New York) and departed close to 7am. It was a four hour flight and with the time change it put me into Madrid at 10am with about a six our layover until my next flight. Since I had a lot of time to kill I did a little bit of shopping, ate lunch and wrote in my journal. After basically spending the night in the Istanbul airport and then having all this time in the Madrid airport, I was more than ready to be going home to New York. Time was just not moving fast enough!

By 5pm I was finally on my second Iberia flight of the day for an eight hour flight to JFK. I was totally exhausted and couldn’t wait to lay back in my comfy airplane chair (joke!), cover up with a blanket, put on my eye mask and lean up against the window with a pillow! Praise God it wasn’t a full flight so I had two seats all to myself and was actually able to get some pretty good shut eye. More than an hour from JFK the lights came on and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. As I looked out the window I was amazed by the view. Clouds were covering the sky below the plane for as far as I could see and I didn’t have a clear view of what was underneath the clouds, but I knew without a doubt that there was ground below. This felt very symbolic for me because in my life that translated into me not having a clear picture of what will happen once I’m back in NYC, but knowing that I will always land on solid ground no matter what because of my faith in a God who is loyal in meeting all of my needs. I also know that clouds in the sky mean turbulence for the plane, which I can relate to as well. When my path seems hazy I feel like I also go through a little turbulence until my vision becomes clear.

Just before 7pm, Iberia flight 6253 was finally landing on the JFK tarmac. I had a million butterflies in my stomach and a rush of emotion engulfed me as I thought about what might lie ahead. I was excited and nervous all at the same time and tears began to fill my eyes. It was Thanksgiving Day and I had so much to be thankful for. What a fitting day for me to be coming home! As I deboarded the plane and made my way to baggage claim I saw tons of people behind the rail waiting for their loved ones and for a brief moment I felt like I was going to break down in tears. Although I had a LOT to be thankful for I felt alone…no one was there waiting for me, not even a hired driver holding a sign with my name on it. No one to help me with my luggage or even make sure I got dinner before heading home. And home? Where was home? I had to shut off my brain from thinking too much or I would start to feel overwhelmed. I did have a place to stay for the night so that’s what I needed to concentrate on. My dear friends Anne and Chris were out of town so they left a key with their doorman so I could get in…which was very-VERY thoughtful. So after a US$56 cab ride to their place in the city, and after reading the note Anne left the doorman to give me concerning bed bugs and how to tell whether or not I have them (very motherly of her!), I was settled into their apartment by 8:30pm. I took a very hot and steamy shower, put on some fresh clean clothes, had a bowl of cereal for my Thanksgiving dinner and went straight to bed, just to be up by 5am the next morning to head back to JFK for my flight to Austin, Texas. Oh, and before jumping into bed I decided to step on the scale (that is strategically placed by the closet) to weigh myself. After being in Ghana and working at a clinic I was on the scale at least once a week (just for fun) and hadn’t been on one since then. Well low and behold I had gained five pounds during my month in Georgia! I had a feeling I was gaining weight considering I really didn’t exercise while I was there and I ate WAY too much bread and cheese. Stuff I really shouldn’t be eating anyway with my tendency for high cholesterol. Believe me, I’m not concerned about gaining weight because I could probably stand to have a few extra pounds, but it’s just crazy how much a person can gain when you’re not even thinking about it. I know I’ll be eating LOTS of yummy food when I’m home in Texas so I might as well end the year with a bang and gain another few pounds while I’m home eating Texas BBQ and TexMex…my two absolutely favorite things! Lone Star State here I come!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008 – one more day in Istanbul [Turkey]

I had my alarm set for 2:30am but as usual woke up before it had a chance to go off. I was out of bed by 2:15am getting ready for my departure from my host family’s house at 3am. My host father was gracious enough to get up at that time as well and take me to the airport. My host mom got up to tell me one final goodbye and I could tell she was getting a little emotional. I tried to be lighthearted and told her to continue praying for my prince charming and I assured her she would get a wedding invitation once an engagement happened! We always joked about my Mr. Right taking his sweet time in finding me and she assured me that it was a good thing he was taking his time so he could sow his wild oats and do whatever else he needed to do before settling down…kind of like what I’m doing myself I guess! My host father loaded up my suitcase and I had the worst case of butterflies ever. I had such mixed feelings about leaving. Part of me was sad to be going so soon, but another part was ready to get back to my life and routine in New York.

When we arrived to the airport my host father parked the car, helped me with my bags and made sure I was checked in okay. We hugged and parted ways and as I went up the escalator to the departing gates a rush of sadness came over me. This was it…this was the last few hours of [G3]. I had experienced so much in such a short time and I had only barely started processing everything. I know I want to do something with these experiences, something to make a difference in the lives of others in New York City, but what would that be? How would I translate these experiences into something meaningful for others in my community? I do have some thoughts but I will wait to share those once I have some time to decompress and sort through my mind and heart.

A little after 6am I landed in Istanbul. Since I had twenty-four hours before my next flight my plan was to leave my luggage at the locker storage and then do my family Christmas shopping at the markets in the Old City. The reason my luggage wasn’t checked all the way through is because my return flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi was not part of my Around the World ticket, it was a separate plane ticket I had to buy. Otherwise my luggage would have been checked through to my flight tomorrow morning.

So off I went to do some shopping, taking the Metro to the Grand Bazaar and stopping for a quick bite to eat. I got to the Bazaar before 9am and all the vendors were still setting up their shops. I bought lots of trinkets and various other things, all for less than US$100…and that included gifts for my entire family! Can’t beat that. Each time I bought something the seller would say “I’ll give you the morning price” or “I’ll give you the first buyer price” and I kept saying “I just want the best bargaining price” (which would still be a few Lira less than the original discounted price they quoted me). After shopping at the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market I walked across the Galata Bridge to the New City and then took the Tunel to Taksim Square where I did more shopping and had lunch. At 6:30pm I was supposed to meet Gokhan, the Turkish guy I met the first time I was in Istanbul (we’ve been keeping in touch via email). As I was standing outside the Burger King in Taksim Square waiting for him it began to rain. The entire day was absolutely beautiful…sunny skies, no clouds at all, and probably in the low 70’s or high 60’s…and now it was raining! I thought it rather fitting since it was raining the last time I was with Gokhan! At 6:50pm I was starting to get worried that maybe there was a miscommunication because he still hadn’t shown up. At 7pm I started to debate on whether or not to leave and try to call him, and then he finally showed up! He had just come from work and thankfully he brought an umbrella big enough for both of us! He looked so cute in his suit and tie! From Burger King we walked west down Istiklal Street and he asked what I would like to eat and I said “anything Turkish”. When we got to the restaurant he chose and sat down at the table I was looking over the menu and saw every international cuisine EXCEPT Turkish. I pointed this out to Gokhan and he was so nonchalant about it and said “No, no Turkish”. I was so confused! Did he think I said I wanted to eat anything BUT Turkish? I then told him that I wanted Turkish food, not pizza or Thai food which were items on the menu. He apologized and said he thought I said “anything” and didn’t hear “anything Turkish”. He said we could leave but we had already placed our drink order and I didn’t want to be complicated. But I have to be honest, I didn’t want anything that was on that menu. I finally settled for a mushroom pizza, which was good, but didn’t satisfy my craving for Turkish food.

From the restaurant he took me to a really cute bar on the top floor of a very old building located in an alley. The views from the bar were stunning! You could see the Asian side of Istanbul and the Bosphorus River from where we were. We each ordered a glass of wine and struggled through our communication. His English is not the greatest so we were always having to look up words on his Blackberry’s Turkish-English dictionary. I had a really nice time but there were a few times he answered his phone and checked his email on his Blackberry, which I think is inconsiderate when you’re spending time with someone. He said it was work and he had to take care of a few things, but come on! Can’t that stuff be put on hold for a few hours?! He works for ING and deals with 401k’s and retirement plans, etc., so I don’t really see how anything would be that urgent to have to answer the phone and check email. Not that I’m dating Gokhan, but it just brought back memories of guys I dated in the past that did that and I didn’t realize how much it really bothered me until he was doing it that night. During one of his phone calls I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the girl sitting next to me, especially after she threw a few “y’alls” out there, so I asked her where she was from. Turns out she’s from Louisiana but now lives in New York! How crazy is that? We talked for about five minutes or so and exchanged information. You never know, I just may have a new friend when I get back to New York!

From Istanbul, Turkey

Gokhan drove to Taksim Square so when we left the bar we headed to his car. He was going to drive me around the city for a bit and then take me to the airport. I thought that was really sweet! It was still raining as we left the bar and I was carrying my backpack and shopping bags and I have to admit that I was a little annoyed that he wasn’t helping me with them. Yes, he was holding the umbrella but he had another hand free! Can you tell I’m such a southern girl who believes in a man being a gentleman?! 🙂 When we got to his car he went straight to the driver’s side and didn’t even attempt to open my car door. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect a guy to do that ALL the time but you would think he would want to try to make a good impression! I guess I’m used to even my guy friends opening car doors or restaurant doors for me so when he didn’t it was pretty obvious to me. I also realize I’m in a different culture and the people here may not always emphasize the things I feel are important.

We drove around the city and over one of the famous bridges (can’t think of the name now) and then headed to the airport, arriving a little after 1am. Gokhan and I hugged and kissed on the check and he told me he would email me and that he hoped to come to New York soon. My flight wasn’t until 6:45am but I figured I would just hang out there, get a little shut eye, then have breakfast before boarding the plane. I really did have a nice time with Gokhan and I really appreciated all he did for me, even when there were a few strikes against him! 🙂 I am thankful that I met him on that road to St. George’s Monastery, the day I found my first shamrock!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008 – Georgian goodbyes [Tbilisi, Georgia]

This morning I took marshrutka number 41 to the Beteli Center and helped the kitchen staff prepare the noon meal for IDPs (internally displaced persons) and the elderly for the last time. The ladies in the kitchen didn’t give me much to do this time because they felt I should relax and let them serve me coffee and food. It’s hard for them to allow a “guest” to do any work in the kitchen in the first place, and then considering it was my last day they really didn’t want me to do anything! So my task was to sit in a chair and sort through dry rice, set the table, place bread plates at each seat and then help serve the meal. After everyone had eaten I helped clean up and then said my final goodbyes. I of course was getting a little teary eyed and the head cook kept hugging me so tight that she was lifting me off the ground! I could hardly believe this was my last day in Georgia. It felt like I had just gotten here.

I then went to the office upstairs to finish a few things and before I left the assistant at the Beteli Center, a twenty-two year old woman, insisted I stay for half an hour longer to eat bread with homemade salsa and drink homemade wine from her village. Of course I couldn’t refuse that! This was also the first time she and I had ever sat down and talked about more personal things. She opened up to me about an ex-boyfriend and the very emotional breakup she went through with him and is still trying to heal from. She also talked about a new business she wants to start and hopes she has for the future. These are all things that Georgians typically consider very private and do not talk about so I felt honored that she felt comfortable sharing her heart with me. But maybe that has something to do with the fact that I’m a foreigner and I’m leaving the country tomorrow morning! Either way, I’m glad she could open up to me.

When I got home my host mom said that the upstairs neighbor (an older woman who runs the second hand shop in the basement of our apartment building) stopped by to say goodbye. Since I missed her my host mom called her to let her know I was home. She came downstairs and gave me a big hug and a kiss, and as she began to talk tears filled her eyes. She doesn’t speak English so my host mom had to translate for us. She said that I was a shining light that was going to be noticeably missed, and that she hopes I will come to Georgia again soon. It was all very sweet and to be honest I never imagined that I would have made such an impression on a women who I had minimal verbal communication with, simply because of our language barrier. I was completely touched.

Before I went to bed my host mom and her son came into my room. Her son handed me a picture he had drawn for me and my host mom handed me another picture. She said it was her daughter’s but she was too upset and embarrassed to give it to me herself because she tried to write something in English on the bottom and ended up misspelling a few words. My host mom said that she was really affected by me leaving (she’s ten years old) and this was why she got so upset. I immediately went to her room where she was already in bed but still sobbing with her face buried in her pillow. I leaned down and put my arms around her and she sat up and I just held her tight. She understands English so I kept telling her how much I loved the picture she made for me and how much I was going to miss her but would always remember her. She continued to cry on my shoulder and I thought I was absolutely going to lose it but I had to stay strong. I never realized that this precious little girl would have grown so attached to me and I am now realizing how much this family has affected me as well. It has taught me a lot living with this family…a lot about marriage and having kids, and trying to balance that with work and a personal life. It’s not an easy task by any means, and I see how there is such a lack of free time and independence. But I also know that with all the hard times and sacrifices there are also many rewards that come from marriage and children, and I hope that I’m lucky enough to experience both at some point in my life.

Monday, November 24, 2008 – ladybugs… [Tbilisi, Georgia]

Today was my only chance to do some shopping for my family back home in Texas…just small gifts that I will give them for Christmas. Since my Dollar goes a lot further here with the exchange rate I figured I would take advantage of the opportunity! My host mom was with me the first part of the day, taking me to shops I’ve never seen before and helping me bargain for the best price. I have to say I’m very happy with all of my purchases and I even got myself a few things! In the last shop my host mom and I were in together she said she wanted to buy something for me but didn’t want it to be just anything. She wanted it to be symbolic, something that would have meaning for me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as we were shopping together she was looking for something that had a shamrock on it but never found anything. So when we were in the last shop together she insisted that I find something for her to buy for me. I told her I appreciated her offer but it really wasn’t necessary, but as my eyes scanned the shop looking for a gift to take home to friends who are newly married, I saw a ladybug made from felt-like material. I knew this was the gift I wanted my host mom to buy me! This would definitely be symbolic for me, especially as I return home to the US. You see, almost a year ago my dear friend Chris Alwell gave me the DVD “Under the Tuscan Sun”. At the time I was at a sort of crossroads about a relationship with a guy, wanting things to progress faster than they were and getting frustrated that it wasn’t going anywhere. In the movie there is a story about a women who was digging around in the grass for hours trying to find a ladybug, getting frustrated that she couldn’t find one. She finally grew tired and fell asleep in the grass and when she woke up she was covered in ladybugs! She explained that once she gave up control and allowed things to happen naturally she got exactly what she wanted. So for me, ladybugs are a reminder to not worry or try to force things to happen. When I give up control and allow God to move in his timing then I will get exactly what I want, and probably in an abundance. I know that when I get back to the US I may struggle with wanting to jump back into my Manhattan life right away, wanting things to fall into place quickly…getting back into the swing of things at work, finding an apartment, getting into a normal routine, etc…but I have to realize that these things are going to take time. I just need to give up my urge to control every situation and allow it to happen naturally. Easier said than done I know! 🙂

Sunday, November 23, 2008 – St. George’s Day [Tbilisi, Georgia]

Church service was really good today and the best part was that I didn’t need anyone to translate because there was a guest speaker from American! The topic was about helping others. One of the comments he made to the Georgians was, “Don’t rely on foreign aid and war relief donations before you start taking care of your people. Start helping them today by gathering up clothes you don’t need anymore and donating extra food items from your farms.” I thought that was a very valid point, even for me as an American. Often times I look at homeless people in the US with little to no sympathy thinking, “My tax dollars already go to homeless shelters and welfare for the poor, why am I going to give them any more of my money…the government should be taking care of them!”. While I do believe that the homeless in America have a lot more opportunities than they would in other countries, maybe I should start looking at them through more sensitive eyes instead of with annoyance…

It was also St. George’s Day and the beginning of a week long celebration (I think it lasts a week), so after church we went to the St. George’s Orthodox Church down the street from our church. I wanted to take a quick look at what was happening since I was told that one of the traditions is to buy a lamb to be slaughtered for the atonement of sins, or to receive a blessing for something specific. I saw this same kind of tradition when I lived in Egypt and after the lamb was sacrificed a portion of the meat would go to the priest/church as an offering to be distributed among the poor, and then the rest would be divided between the family who bought the lamb. Here at St. George’s they already had two lambs tied up behind the church but we didn’t stay long enough to witness anything happen.

From St George's Day

Orthodox holidays must be a magnet for the poor because as we were walking around the church I was shocked at how many beggars were scattered throughout the grounds. I decided to go into the church to have a look at the famous golden St. George icon, which is a man on a horse slaying a dragon. People (mostly women) were crowded around the icon kissing it, touching it, lighting candles around it and saying prayers out loud.

From St George's Day
From St George's Day

St. George is very famous throughout Georgia and is the emblem on of the country’s Coat of Arms. He lived Cappadocia and was tortured for his Christian beliefs, like many others during the third century. To this day he is adorned not only by Christians but also people of other beliefs, and is even mentioned in the Koran. November 23rd is considered to be the day of adoration and respect of the Saint.

From St. George’s Church we headed to Turtle Lake, the area of the city we wanted to go to last Sunday but couldn’t because of the Grand Prix. I treated my host family to a very nice, traditional Georgian lunch at a restaurant on top of the Turtle Lake mountain and afterward we went to the man-made lake. Since it was a holiday it was full of families and small children, but of course no one was swimming! Too cold and the water level definitely wasn’t high enough.

From St George's Day
From St George's Day
From St George's Day

We were fighting the clock to be able to see all the sites we planned to before the sun set so we only stayed at the lake for about twenty minutes then went to the “Mama Daviti” Orthodox Church (Father of David). From there you can see a view of almost all of Tbilisi! It was an absolutely beautiful day and the sun was shinning brightly.

From St George's Day

When we were there we witnessed someone trying to walk a sheep around the church three times in order to receive a blessing of health…this was also part of St. George’s Day. The poor sheep didn’t want to corporate so it was more like a dragging, pulling and carrying of the sheep three times around the church!

From the church we went to my host mom’s sister’s house to have tea, Georgian desserts and ice cream. Yuuummmy! I know my cholesterol level is seriously tipping the charts by now!

Saturday, November 22, 2008 – a hair cut, a World Vision competition & dinner in little America! [Tbilisi, Georgia]

I have been in desperate need of a hair cut and I was planning to wait until I got back to the States but when I asked my host mom how much a hair cut would cost in Tbilisi I immediately decided it would be in my best financial interest to get a hair cut here. I mean $5 Lari for a haircut?! Are you joking?? That’s equal to $3 Dollars! Of course I would get a hair cut here! Ok, so to be honest I was a little nervous on how it would turn out, but I figured for US$3 it was worth taking a chance and if I didn’t like it I could always get another hair cut when I got back to the US. The hair cut didn’t take more than fifteen to twenty minutes and believe it or not I really like it! I wish it were about an inch shorter but other than that it looks great.

At 1pm I took Marshrutka number 6 to Public School No. 24 where the World Vision IDP kids (internally displaced persons) were having a sports competition. This is the second weekend World Vision has hosted a competition between the six IDP schools; the first weekend was academic and this weekend was sports. They competed in climbing, basketball, jump rope, tug of war and football (soccer). The kids had a lot of fun, as did I as I helped cheer the kids on, shouting the team name “Vicandgabby” over and over (“Vicandgabby” is Georgian for Vikings). The competition finished around 5pm with an award ceremony and our team came in at 2nd place (out of six teams total). I was so proud of them!!

From World Vision Competition
From World Vision Competition
From World Vision Competition
From World Vision Competition

After the awards everyone headed to McDonald’s where World Vision bought all the kids happy meals. I was unable to go because I had dinner plans at Kathy and Gary’s house. Kathy is the leader from Thursday’s women’s gathering and her husband Gary is the one who works at the American Embassy. Dinner was absolutely fabulous! We had very tender baked chicken that feel off the bone, a lettuce salad with all kinds of vegetables (Georgian salads usually consist of only cucumbers, tomatoes and onions), a few different pasta dishes and other sides. For dessert we had a few Georgian treats (chorchxella & bird’s milk which is a chocolate covered marsh mellow), fruit, and my favorite of all…ice cream with three types of topping; butterscotch, caramel, and chocolate! I thought I had died and gone to heaven! Although I hate the thought of what my cholesterol level is at the moment with all the cheese and ice cream I’ve had over the last month. My doctor would kill me if he knew I was eating so many things with saturated fat! Gary told me that the Embassy provides free shipping for up to 2500 pounds for the two years families are stationed at their location which is absolutely fabulous. They have all sorts of things, even food items from Trader Joe’s, my absolute favorite grocery store! Maybe I should send my application to the American Embassy around the world…at least to the one’s that provide such a life of luxury! 🙂

Friday, November 21, 2008 – a visit with IPDs at Public School No. 40 [Tbilisi, Georgia]

This morning I went to the Beteli Center and spent about an hour helping my host father learn a bit about Power Point for one of the classes he’s taking for him Master’s degree in Business. I hadn’t been on Power Point in a while so it was a refresher for me. He had to create three master slides according to the exact specifications his teacher gave him on a handout. Since the handout was in Georgian my host father’s translation was a times difficult to understand because he wasn’t using the technical terms I am used to hearing when referring to Power Point. Of course this was no fault of his own and he was doing the best he could but it took a few attempts to try to understand exactly what was required of the specifications. I’m still not quite sure if I helped him create exactly what the teacher wanted but I guess he’ll find out at his next class!

At noon I left to meet the Jenni (my American friend) and the other Georgians who are a part of the group that visits IDPs (internally displaced persons) every Friday at Tbilisi Public School No. 40. This school is located about forty-five minutes from the city center and houses thirteen families from South Ossetia. We met in one family’s room (the same one the group meets in every week) and whoever else wants to join can. Today I picked up a few bars of chocolate to share with the IDPs so when we first arrived we had coffee (except me since I’m not a coffee drinker) and opened up the chocolate.

From IDP Site

We spent about the first half hour catching up on what’s been going on with them in the last week and then we asked if they had a chance to read the books we left last week. It’s a story which is laid out in a comic book fashion and is about a little girl, Doria, who has a very hard life as she’s growing up and it talks about all the struggles she goes through all the way until adulthood.

From IDP Site

The objective of this book was to stir up emotion and get them thinking about their lives and situation. One of the questions they were asked is if they thought world peace would ever be possible. Their answer (like mine) was no. It is unfortunate but also a very harsh reality in my opinion. When asked why they thought world peace would never be possible some of their answers were “because Russia is still occupying Georgia” and “because they either don’t know God or have fallen away from God”. This lead into a very deep discussion about religion and different beliefs, which then led to one of the ladies reading from the Bible.

From IDP Site

I thought it was good to see how engaged they were getting in the conversation and you could see how hungry they were for answers of why things are the way they are and wanting to know why they were put in this situation. An older lady made the comment that she sees God and is really trying to reach out to him but she can’t seem to grab a hold of him, while others said God was their only comfort during all of this unrest. I just sat and listened to the translation of conversations back and forth but felt unqualified to voice any of my own thoughts. I wish I had concrete, solid answers for them of why this happened…why they are now both homeless and jobless…but I have no answers. I feel that nothing I, or anyone else says, can help them understand why this happened. All I can try to do is encourage them and instill a new found hope for their future, but even that poses a challenge when they see nothing around them changing. They’re still living in the same school they were evacuated to three months ago and they are still living without some basic needs being met. It completely breaks my heart.

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