Left of yesterday

That’s what I call it when my life takes an unexpected turn. You know, when you start down one path and end-up on a completely different one and it turns out to be, well, different . . . Left of yesterday.

If you ever find yourself left of yesterday, know that different directions, abrupt turns and false starts are a natural part of life. Trust that you have what it takes to handle the turnarounds and detours, and then try to relax and see what there is to see along the way.  (If you don’t believe or are shaky about trusting you have what it takes, don’t worry, we all feel that way at times. Check out my Courage Diet, it can help restart your engines.)

I promise you there is something to be gained left of yesterday, no matter how well its treasures are hidden.

Kinkhali in waiting

Hope your Thanksgiving holiday is filled with fun, family and friends. I will be spending mine in the Republic of Georgia with a former PCV buddy from Macedonia. No doubt, we will be eating kinkhali, sipping some beer and taking lots of photos, which I promise to share with you soon. (This photo is not mine, borrowed it from www.instructablescomiddumplingsfromthemountainsofgeorgia)

Until then, consider all the paths you travel to be the ones you are supposed to be on; remember gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving, and whether you buy or bake the pumpkin pie being able to share it with friends and family is all that really matters.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PS If you want to observe the fine art of kinkhali folding, click here. These delicious dumplings come in many varieties, the most common being a meat mixture, followed by cheese, potatoes and mushrooms. They are delicious and seem to me to be a cross between Chinese dumplings and pierogies. Meat kinkhali contain juices you must suck from the dumpling before taking a bite and the juice tastes like won-ton soup to me!

Out of the minds of babes

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a special art show in the heart of Tbilisi this weekend, featuring the work of some very talented youngsters, who had been asked to share their artistic views on the environment. Their paintings were amazing and their messages colorful and concise.  

The kids get it – our environment and how we treat it matters, which was the overall message of the project. Their art depicts the individual and global  impact our actions make on the environment. The fact that they had fun creating their paintings, that the paintings turned out to be fantastic, and that the students received well-deserved recognition through the project, was as sweet as the icing on the delicious cake they served us!  

Make sure you check out the last photo; it is a cryptically beautiful reminder for each of us to do all we can before it is too late.

I love the messages along the bottom of the painting.

There were 70 paintings displayed in the art gallery of a beautiful hotel in the center of Tbilisi. The room was filled with happy kids and proud parents. The event was held under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment Protection, which is where I’m assigned as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.

The talent and insight of children never ceases to amaze me, the kids captured some really special moments and messages with their well-placed brush strokes. These are just a sampling of their work.

Each of the students who participated received certificates presented by the Deputy Minster of Environment Protection and a t-shirt designed by the sponsoring organizations.

I love that art allows their environmental messages to shine through no matter the differences in language and culture. 

 
I swear, no one at the exhibit looked like they could have been the subjects of the following paintings; be prepared to smile. I’m sure the kids’ parents and grand parents enjoyed the way their offspring portrayed them . . .
 

 

This is the Peace Bridge, which connects the left and right banks of the Kura River in Old Tbilisi.

The last two paintings offer particularly poignant perspectives.

 
Let me know your thoughts and favorites . . . 

“Honeymoon with My Brother”

One of the many joys of being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) is you often end-up reading books you might otherwise miss. PCVs are always searching for something to read, and I’m no exception, so I was very happy to be able to gather a stack of books when I first arrived at the PC office in Tbilisi, Georgia.

I’ve was so busy settling in, I didn’t get to read “Honeymoon with My Brother” until last Saturday, but it quickly turned into my favorite of the bunch. It was published in 2005 and was written by Franz Wisner, who at the age of 33 got dumped five days before his wedding, and a week or so later was demoted at his job. Bad week, huh? Yup, but the really interesting part is what happened next . . .

The first person he called when realizing his girlfriend of 7+ years was backing out, was his kid brother Kurt. They weren’t close, but he realized Kurt was the one he really wanted to talk to. His brother arrived in a day or two, and convinced Franz to go ahead with the wedding even without a bride since the location and accommodations were already paid for and many of the guests were en-route or had tickets in hand.

That turned out to be a great decision, having close friends and family around got Franz through the first couple of days, and gave him the stamina to deal with his demotion the next week. His relationship with his brother and the support of his friends ended-up being the calm in the eye of the emotional storm swirling around him.

In an odd turn of events, Franz soon convinced his brother to join him on a mega-trip using the already paid for honeymoon plane tickets and hotel reservations as a starting point, and as they say, the rest is history. Their plans for a one-year trip evolved into series of  3-6 months stays on various continents and expanded to two years, punctuated by short trips back to the States. Their journey of a lifetime cemented their relationship; ignited their passion for travel and led to “Honeymoon with My Brother”.

“Honeymoon with My Brother”, details not only their travels but the path they followed to rebuild their relationship. What I truly enjoyed about the book is Franz never sugar-coated his pain and confusion, but also never let if get in the way of a good story. He  deftly weaves dealing with the aftermath of his failed relationship, stalled career, and guilt for not being there for his brother when his brother’s marriage fell apart a few years earlier with entertaining travel tips and tales.

I highly recommend the book, both as a travel and a life guide.  But most of all, because it’s a great read. Here are a few of the insights I gleaned from its pages . . .

Things don’t matter as much as people do. Yeah, yeah. We all know this, but I’m guessing most of us find it much harder to actually live it.

Life can sting and burn, but that doesn’t mean it will end-up in flames – and if it does, rising from the ashes just might be the way to go. An homage to creating the life you want, even when you are not sure or keep changing your mind about what that life is or even thinking about wanting something seems like too much effort.

Slowing down, taking time to think, and to heal is hard to do. But I know from firsthand experience, it works.

Honest reflection is a part of growth and necessary whether you are standing still or traveling the world. Don’t fight it; invite it.  

Action and courage go hand-in-hand. Note to self: the first step may seem the hardest, yet sometimes life gets even worse before it gets better; try not to worry and just keep moving forward.

When traveling, don’t forget to pack patience and a sense of humor.Happiness is my constant traveling  companion, if I only remember to open my suitcase.”

Time is our friend – even when it feels heavy – and it can help heal wounds, if we let it. Life is a marathon not a sprint.

After writing “Honeymoon with My Brother”, Franz and Kurt headed back on the road, which led to a second book; a happy marriage and two kids for Franz. He and his brother Kurt are best buddies; their lives are good. To read more about Franz, Kurt and their journey, click here, here or here.

To get a new look on life, scroll down and see the view from my host family’s home in the eastern suburbs of Tbilisi, Georgia . . . 

Close-up view from my bedroom window.

 

Stepping back from my bedroom window.

Long shot from my bedroom window.

Nearby house on sunny day from bedroom.

Early morning rainbow from the balcony.

Second shot of the morning from the balcony.

Wider view – see my bus stop?

Mountains can be seen everywhere!

Broader view from the balcony.

This is a good example of the thousands of apartment buildings in Georgia.

PS As always, the book cover is included for illustrative purposes, not to suggest you buy!

Georgian Grits

We have a saying in south Florida that to get to the South – as in the America’s deep South – you must go north. You see, there are so many northerners in south Florida, you really don’t hear accents or get to experience the “southern” way of life, until you reach Ocala, which is north of Orlando. But some Southern traditions have seeped south of Ocala and good-old southern grits is one of them. Grits can be found just about everywhere in Florida, and as you know, in many other parts of the States, as well. But somehow I never expected to find them in the Republic of Georgia!

Turns out, folks in some regions of Georgia use corn products as their basic starch instead of bread. In my area bread reigns supreme, but a creamier version of grits has found its way onto the table and into the hearts of my host family. (In case I haven’t mentioned it, most Peace Corps Response Corps Volunteers in Georgia live with host families. Mine is absolutely wonderful, and they have graciously opened their doors to me for my three-month stay here. They’ve made me feel completely at home, sharing their apartment, sense of humor, exuberance for life and meals with me.) 

Truth is, I’m not a big fan of grits on any continent, too gritty for me, but the Georgian version I sampled was smoother and white as snow. It was served with a white cheese common to most of Eastern Europe – varying only in density and salt content (salty and saltier). The best, but still completely inaccurate way to describe “white cheese” in Eastern Europe, is to say it’s similar to the feta we use in the States, yet very different. Sorry, but that’s the best description and comparison I’ve come-up with. (Having said that, I will mention that if you buy your feta by the piece in an ethnic or speciality shop in the States the differences diminish a bit.) White cheese here is usually served in 1/4″ by 3″ slabs, but on occasion it is grated – for a pizza topping, but never crumbled like our feta. It  accompanies most meals, including breakfast – just like in Macedonia, so it was served along with our Georgian grits.

The fun part was hiding your slab of cheese in the grits. By the time you got to it, the salt had dispersed a bit and the cheese began melting into short strands similar to mozzarella. (There are some types of white cheese specifically purchased for their ability to melt into long and luxurious strands, ours today had a bit of this delectable quality.)

The most amazing part of finding grits in Georgia, was not the discovery itself but learning the process used in making them, which is extremely time-consuming. The better part of two women’s morning was entirely devoted to the task. The process actually began a day earlier when a large white pail – think “American paint pail” – appeared with fine ground yellow flecked corn filled to the brim. I was told that the corn was freshly ground and was from a village plot planted and tended by a family member. (Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of the pail, because at that point, I had no clue the pail’s contents were going to be part of our lunch the next day.)

My host Mom mentioned Saturday morning they were going to begin preparing a traditional favorite. As she described the process, my thoughts quickly turned to women everywhere, who are so often involved in laborious processes as a means of preparing daily meals for their families. Many meals in Eastern Europe take as long to prepare as our holiday fare, and give cooking-from-scratch new meaning.

I was on-hand, but not in the room, for most of the process. I tend to follow the too-many-cooks-spoil-the-batter approach to cooking here, and stay out of the way, popping in and out for picture-taking. Unfortunately my approach left me wondering about the exact order of things, so remember my photos are informational not instructional – if you are seized by the urge to grind your own corn and prepare Georgian-style grits, there isn’t enough  information here for you to do it correctly, but I think you will be able to get the gist of it!

Another unfortunate lapse on my part was that I ate my grits without first taking a photo of them. Sorry about that. Please picture a soft white mound of gooey grits on a small round china plate sitting on top of an oilcloth covered table with light streaming in through a large window next to the table, okay? Thank you.

I’ve included two new photo viewing options for you, let me know what you think. And, don’t forget close-ups are available by clicking on each photo. The one of the ground corn in the sack is marvelous, if I do say so myself.  

 

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Tiny and tall, big and small

Remember when tying your shoes, getting your driver’s license, or starting your degree seemed like dream?  When making the grade, finding the outfit, or arranging the details of whatever seemed overwhelming? 

You’ve faced and surmounted hundreds – if not thousands – of tiny and tall challenges throughout your life, and yet sometimes the new ones – big and small – can still throw us for a loop.

Why is that?

I really don’t have a good answer, but I do have a solution!  Spend more time dreaming and less time wondering how and why. Picture the end, don’t worry so much about the beginning. I know, I know, easier said then done, but the truth is you have already accomplished so many things. In fact you are probably a pro at moving forward, but just haven’t given yourself enough credit for your accomplishments.

You, yes you, have succeeded against all odds, you’ve been succesful even when you were scared, worried and overwhelmed – admit it. You’re good at lots of stuff.

Now, just think what you could do if you cut the worrying in half, or even trimmed the roughest edges off. I truly believe dreaming and letting yourself picture yourself succeeding and feeling what that feels like, if even for the briefest of moments, is the way to go.

I know it is hard. Many of us have been conditioned to believe we have to worry, wait, and ruminate before we can attempt something new or different, if at all. Or, perhaps we feel we just don’t deserve it, or that our luck will run out and someone, somewhere, will figure out that we aren’t as smart or capable as we seem to be, or maybe we believe we have gotten more than our fair share of good stuff and second chances, and there’s no more to be had.

Hogwash, I say! (Actually I have never said that, but somehow it seemed perfect at this very moment.)

Now is the time to spend more time dreaming and picturing the end: you – feeling wonderful and proud; you – happy you took the chance – a bit sorry for the bumps and bruises but delighted with the results. I’m absolutely positive that at some point in your life you have said to yourself, “That wasn’t so bad.” And, my guess is you were right!

What I am suggesting is that you start by saying “This won’t be so bad. I’m smart, prepared, I’ve done it before and I can do it again.” Practice if you have to, keep at it until you mean it. 

Cut yourself some slack!

Be your own best buddy and ask yourself what you really want, or how you want something to turn out, and then sit with that for a bit. Let yourself, slowly at first if it seems too big and scary, picture the results:  You’ve done it. You’ve gotten your degree, bought the house or car, renewed your relationship, started a new one, written the report or the book, taken the test, given the party, become an even better parent, or let someone know you love them.

The what is up to you, let the how go, and give yourself credit for all the hows you’ve figured out in the past, and trust that you can do it again.

Now, take a deep breath, relax and go. There is a great big beautiful world out there waiting for you. So what if you stumble and fall, you’ve done that before too; we all have. Picture yourself getting up, dusting yourself off, and starting over. You can do it! I have complete confidence in you! Go for it.

“Georgian Snickers”

 

Georgian joke . . . So, a Georgian fellow is heading to America and customs has decided to search his bags. The custom agent comes across a number of long, dark, odd-looking items, lifts one and gruffly demands to know, “What’s this?” The Georgian gentleman struggles with his English as he nervously tries to explain the object so common to him, which now suddenly look like a great place for hiding drugs. After many failed attempts, he triumphantly blurts out – “It’s a Georgian Snickers!” 

So “What is a “Georgian Snickers?” you ask. Why Churchkhela, of course.

And, “What pray tell is Churchkhela?” 

It’s an ancient, simple food that, I’ve been told, helped mountain men survive in the past and continues to delight Georgians of all ages today. You see, the ingredients and longevity of the Churchkhela made it perfect for long journeys; it was healthy, tasted good, provided nourishment, and was easy to carry and store. Today it reminds folks of simpler times and still tastes good.

Pronounced “church-kella”, it’s not a pretty thing at first glance; it looks like a sausage left hanging to dry, and is made in a similar fashion to hand-dipped candles!

Without further ado, I present Churchkhela . . .

Last step of the cooking process, Churchkhela hanging to dry

My first encounter with this delightful treat was on a Sunday drive to the special mountain village Sighnaghi (Signagi) with my wonderful Georgian host family. Once the traffic of Tbilisi was far behind us, and our car seemed perpetually inclined upward, I started seeing what I assumed was sausage hanging along the roadside. Just when I decided to ask, “What’s that?”, our car began pulling off the road. I wasn’t sure why, but hoped it had something to do with the “sausage.”

Here’s where we stopped because, and as you can see, this enterprising Grandma had covered her Churchkhela with lace to keep the dust from the road to a minimum.

Churchkhela entrepreneur.

She assured my hosts that her Churchkhela was natural, and made without water. “Hmm, without water,” I said to myself after they translated for me. I assumed the lack of water was a good thing because the woman was excitedly repeating that phrase.

By this time I knew were weren’t dealing with sausage, but had no clue what the waxy looking substance was.  We bought two, and climbed back into the car. By now I was brimming with anticipation, like a child waiting for the wrapper to be removed from a  Halloween candy bar. A few seconds later a chunk of Churchkhela was plopped into my hand, and my excitement waned as I felt the hard wax surface in my fingers. I was thinking, “Hmm, looks like bumpy wax, feels like bumpy wax,” as I was being urged from the back seat to “Take a bite.”  

Moments like these are common during Peace Corps service, anticipation and trepidation meld into one, as your stomach and soul shout don’t do it and your heart and mind say “Go ahead”, tempting you with the implicit dare in the age-old question “How bad can it be? You are poised on the edge of a gastronomical diving board, you want to take the plunge, and yet, you can’t quite dive in.

After repeated urgings from numerous family members, and guarantees it wasn’t hot – I had already fallen for that one earlier in the week – my teeth broke through the waxy substance, which quickly brought to mind a  childhood Halloween favorite, waxed lips.

My taste buds seemed to recognize a flavor that I couldn’t place. I bit all the way through the candle/sausage and tasted walnuts along the way. Hmm, familiar with this territory I chewed on. Nice texture, not too sweet, chewy without being sticky. I dove in with full force and was soon enjoying my first Churchkhela on my first road trip in Georgia. 

I quickly began asking “What is it?” “How is it made?” I was delighted to hear, that later that day I would get to see the process first-hand.

After our trip to Sighnaghi, a beautifully renovated mountain town in eastern Georgia, where more Churchkhela and these lovely handmade items were offered for sale . . .

Bite-size Churchkhela along side sausage-style

Traditional Wool Caps

These beautiful scarves were oh, so delicately woven.

. . . we arrived at the home of another warm and welcoming family member, and the Churchkhela-making fun began.

The process of making Churchkhela started outdoors on an ancient wooden table under a grape arbor. Freshly made white grape juice (no water) was poured into a large pot, and what seemed like cups and cups of flour was tossed in. My host sister began the slow process of stirring the mixture to make sure not a single lump – large or small – remained.

Stirring flour into the white grape juice.

The same pot was then transferred to the stove and again stirred until it reached a rich dark caramel color paste-like consistency; then we dipped/plunged these hand threaded walnut ropes into the piping hot mixture.

Threaded walnuts, can you imagine how carefully you have to handle these little guys?

Then we very gently maneuvered the boiling hot treat across the kitchen to the broom handle laying across the back of two chairs, lift one end of the broom handle and slid the latest Churchkhela into place, which I quickly learned is much, much easier said than done. (See first photo.)

I also learned that the long and delicate caramel-looking thread at the dipped end of the Churchkhela is the mark of an accomplished Churchkhela maker. Mine were stumpy, but still tasted great – I’ve been knawing on one as I write this post. It is  mighty tasty, less sweet then dried fruit or a fruit roll-up. I’ve decided it is the beef-jerky of dried fruit – it tires out your jaws, but is as much fun eat as it is to make.  

Churchkhela batter is also served cold like this, but tastes even better warm from the pot.

 
For those of you,  who would like to make this interesting goodie, click here,  here or here for more info and photos.  Churchkhela is also made with almonds, hazelnuts and dried fruits including persimmons so feel free to mix it up!
 
And, for those who just want to pause and take in the sights from our road trip, enjoy. 
 

Iron fence along the road.

 
 

The Georgian village Singali, where you can see for miles.

 

A horse, but you probably guessed that.

In front of the wedding hall. I was wondering why the statue was so small, but then I met . . .

. . . this kind store keeper, and figured it out. I towered over her and, I am 5 foot 4!

Like so many mountain-top towns and castles, Sighnaghi is surrounded by a stone wall, which you can see in the distance.

 

And, thus ends the tale of my first adventure in the beautiful, surprising country of Georgia. Hope your week is full of sweet surprises, too.

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