You know, I can’t read a word of Georgian.
There are some fourteen unique alphabets in the world, and Georgian is one of them. Unfortunately, I can’t even make out a single letter of it. You can stick my two favorite words in front of me, gamahrjobat (transliteration, meaning “hello”) and didi modloba (trans: “thank you very much”)—words I repeat frequently as they represent the extent of my Georgian vocabulary—and tell me that it was my street address and I wouldn’t know any better. I am completely illiterate! And it is frustrating to no end!
Struggling with this, I realized that one of my normal coping strategies while traveling abroad is to look for cognates and transliterations whenever possible. In France, for example, I just sounded out the words. In India, the Hindi signs were usually subtitled with English transliterations. Good stuff, real helpful…unfortunately, signs here are subtitled with Russian transliterations. And my Russian is even worse than my Georgian!
This is particularly frustrating when I am hungry. For example, Clare and I have tried many of the local restaurants in our neighborhood, always hoping that they will have an English menu. Of course, this is rarely the case and we usually point to things on the menu based on their price. We just say a prayer and hope it will be something hot and good. Finally, last week we found a restaurant that had a transliterated menu and we excitedly searched for foods we had tried and liked over our short stay. I remembered seeing a dish with skewered meat the week earlier and rushed to order something called “kabob,” thinking I had cracked the code.
After waiting in anticipation, I got a foot long sausage wrapped in a tortilla-like pastry. It was served with a side of spicy ketchup.
At first I thought that I had lined up the transliteration with the wrong line of Georgian writing. Tired of eating whatever happened to come out, and determined to get that skewered meat (regardless of cost and embarrassment), I ordered kabob again. This time I paid close attention to which line of writing I pointed to.
I got another foot-long sausage thing.
Again unrelenting, I tried to remember meat dishes we had with Georgian friends—ah, shashashuli! Nope. This was a stewed meat dish in a sizzling clay pot. I think it was goat meat. I was getting farther away from my shish kabob by the minute! Meanwhile, Clare was making similar efforts to get a dish she remembered being called “bean in pot” and we slowly took in that our language problems were symptomatic of our cultural illiteracy writ large (yup, pun intended).
Finally, noticing our table full of small plates of meats and vegetables, and having observed our repeated efforts to pantomime food descriptions to an equally frustrated server, a patron came over and offered to help. He spoke English and asked us what we were trying to order. At last, I got my shashlik. It was delicious.
As we walked home, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself about how complicated a simple thing like eating meat on a stick could become when there is a breakdown in inter-cultural communication. I thought about IRD’s USDA agriculture program in the Kvema Khartli region of Georgia. They were able to include a group of new IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] into their existing micro-enterprise farming project this past spring, helping these displaced farmers earn some money and feed their families. Like many of their projects, IRD did this through a successful partnership with a local NGO.
Clare and I weren’t exactly going to starve that night. And we weren’t in Tbilisi because a conflict forced us out of our home. We certainly aren’t country experts like IRD’s international staff here, either. Nonetheless, having a local partner sure seems like a smart strategy.