Tbilisi in 30 Seconds (x2)

During our recent trip to Armenia and Georgia, I captured two of Tbilisi’s highlights with 30-second videos: one featuring whimsy, the other faith.

At the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theater, whimsical characters circled a clock tower at the stroke of noon. This video is also available on YouTube.

At the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta, near Tbilisi, we saw a wedding and people praying in a stunning setting. This video is also on YouTube. We visited both the clock tower and the cathedral during our excellent tour with Hop on Hop off Tbilisi.

 

 

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Armenia and Georgia

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Moldova wasn’t the only country I barely knew before joining the Peace Corps. I also was unfamiliar with Armenia and Georgia, which Champa and I visited this past week during her school’s fall break.

Guess what: They’re beautiful, fascinating, filled with surprises and much easier to visit than you might expect, especially if you’re an American whose idea of “foreign travel” is limited to typical (and expensive) destinations such as Paris or London. Many of us who grew up during the Cold War tended to equate the Soviet Union with Russia, but it included so much more than that.

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As you can see on the map, Armenia and Georgia are located on the other side of the Black Sea from Moldova. All three countries are small former Soviet states that declared their independence in 1991. They share many traditions, from Orthodox Christianity to cheese pastries, but Armenia and Georgia each have their own distinct identity. Both are more prosperous than Moldova, especially in their capitals, Yerevan and Tbilisi. IMG_8386Their histories range from Armenia’s genocide to Georgia’s famous son, Joseph Stalin. They are Caucasian in the original sense of that word, with the Caucasus Mountains and striking landscapes.

We flew from Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, via Kiev to Yerevan, where we spent our first full day visiting three friends serving in Peace Corps Amernia: Brent and Dee Beardsley and Karen Jean Hunt, all seen here with us. We then toured some of Armenia’s most famous sites, including the temples at Garni and Geghard, shown above, the cathedral and other treasures of Echmiadzin and the ruins at Zvartnots. We drove past countryside like you see below.

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Next we hired a car to drive us north across the Georgian border to Tbilisi, a trip of about six hours including stops at Lake Sevan, Dilijan and a nondescript roadside cafe that served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever eaten. We checked into an Airbnb, shown below, and immediately tried some of Georgia’s cuisine, including its khinkali dumplings that reminded us of Nepal’s momos. The next day we toured Tbilisi and the nearby sites of Jvari and Mtskheta, enjoying still more churches, a synagogue, outdoor markets and a cable car ride.

We loved Yerevan and Tbilisi. Both offer amazing sights, rich history, good hotels and restaurants, lively nightlife, friendly people and reasonable prices. We felt completely safe and had little trouble communicating; many people in both capitals speak at least some English.

During our tours, we met more tourists from Dubai and Abu Dhabi than the United States. That’s a shame. Americans are missing out on a great travel experience: two welcoming countries that are relatively easy to reach and require no visas. As I wrote previously about Transylvania in Romania, if you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking beyond the beaten path, consider visiting Armenia and Georgia — and Moldova! — before they are “discovered.”

I won’t tell anyone if you need to peek again at the map to be sure where they are.

Keeping Kids Safe Online

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Just like parents in America, Moldova’s moms and dads worry what their kids are seeing and doing on the internet.

On Sunday, some of them learned techniques for protecting their children’s privacy and for avoiding online threats such as predators and sexual content. They participated in a special SuperCoders event where they discussed E-safety while their kids got a fun introduction to computer coding.

At Biblioteca publică orăşenească „Petre Ştefănucă” in Ialoveni, where I work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, 19 kids took part in the program sponsored by Orange Moldova, the country’s largest telecommunications company. Orange Moldova teamed up with Novateca to organize similar sessions at 37 public libraries across Moldova over three weeks.

IMG_8186Ranging in age from 10 to 14, Ialoveni’s kids used a Romanian version of the colorful Scratch software developed at the MIT Media Lab to encourage young people to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. The software resembled some of the Hour of Code games I’ve used previously at the library.  As before, the kids loved it and began solving fun problems within minutes. Meanwhile, their parents were in an adjacent room discussing topics ranging from cyber bullying to the importance of changing passwords regularly.

In the brief video clip below, my library colleague Lidia Rusu asks the kids in Romanian whether they’re tired of programming. You can figure out their response without my translation.

[Video clip also viewable on YouTube.]

Metro Shopping

If you shop at Costco, BJ’s or Sam’s Club, the two Metro stores in Moldova will seem familiar.

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I was astonished the first time Champa and I visited one of these local warehouse stores with our host family. The displays of Barbie dolls, blenders and Italian pastas seemed more appropriate to an American suburb than a country hosting Peace Corps volunteers. The brand names ranged from Coca Cola to Samsung, with ATM machines available to help customers buy even more merchandise.

 

The two stores in Chișinău are among more than 750 across Europe and Asia run by the German company Metro Cash & Carry. Together with France’s Carrefour and the British company Tesco, Metro has a big presence in this part of the world even if most Americans have never heard of it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 10.03.14 AMThe stores here resemble Costco, from their giant shelves and forklifts to their membership cards and crowded parking lots where customers unload giant boxes of laundry detergent or dog food. Here, too, customers seem to buy more than they need because they can’t resist an apparent bargain. Many pay with cash, although credit and debit cards are becoming more popular with the kinds of Moldovans who shop here. IMG_7207

They are among the more prosperous consumers in this country, where many people still shop mainly at village alimentaras that resemble larger convenience stores back home. Those shopping at Metro illustrate Moldova’s aspirations for a modern European economy.

One thing Metro doesn’t have are the giant muffins Costco sells. I’m partial to the ones with chocolate chips myself. I’m hoping Metro will have them if our host family ever brings us back for another visit.

 

 

Sharing Our Story

Earlier this year, Champa’s school received a wonderful gift of English-language books from Darien Book Aid, a nonprofit organization in Connecticut that sends free books to organizations in the United States and abroad. img_1420Champa requested the books, which ranged from easy readers to story anthologies. They’ve found a happy audience at her school ever since then.

More recently, the organization contacted us to ask whether they might profile us for a story in their newsletter about older Peace Corps Volunteers. Especially since they’d been so generous, we agreed. The article was just published.

Please consider donating to Darien Book Aid! Their latest newsletter is here, including the article about us, which follows below.

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We're still working — but now as Peace Corps volunteers. Join us on the journey.

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