A few weeks ago, I boarded a plane on my first international flight since leaving Austria in March of 2020. After several long layovers, no missed connections or lost baggage, I arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia at 4 am on September 11 to start my year as an English Teaching Assistant with Fulbright.
A Quick Geography Lesson
To clarify, I arrived in the Republic of Georgia, a country in the Caucasus. Not Georgia, the state. I would also like to clarify that Georgia is not a part of Russia. Just because I was a Russian major and am now living in a post-Soviet country that has a relatively short history of speaking Russian, does not mean that I am in Russia. (We had this issue when I was in Kyrgyzstan, which is also not a part of Russia.)
The Application Process
I started my Fulbright application in June and submitted it in October of 2021, which already feels so long ago. I earned my TESOL certificate that spring and pictured myself traveling to Georgia after graduation to find a job teaching English. I’ve wanted to visit Georgia since I first learned about it years ago, but it wasn’t the best option for my study abroad semester. Between the food and wine, linguistic diversity, and seriously breathtaking nature, it seemed like a natural fit for me.
Initially, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time going through such a rigorous and competitive application process but my professors at UM encouraged me to apply. I probably wrote 10 drafts of each application essay that summer! I had so much support from my recommendation writers, UM’s Office of External Scholarships and Fellowships, and the campus Fulbright advising committee that eventually I had a good feeling about it.
In April, after a nerve-wracking couple of months, I finally received the news that I was selected as a finalist! That was all I knew until this summer. After Russia invaded Ukraine, there was some concern from applicants as to whether the program would continue. Inflation and a housing crisis struck Tbilisi and other cities, so I tried not to get my hopes up. Finally, in July, we got the go-ahead and were told more details about the grant amount, our placements in Georgia, and health and safety guidelines.
My host institution is Shota Meskhia State Teaching University of Zugdidi in the city of Zugdidi. Zugdidi is in the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region in western Georgia, on the border of the autonomous (Russian-occupied) Abkhazia and the Black Sea. Samegrelo is a region known for its population of Mingrelians, an ethnic group that speaks Mingrelian. Mingrelian is an endangered language of the Kartvelian language family (distinct from, and not a dialect of, Georgian) which has no official status or written standard.
I live in a little apartment connected to a lovely family’s home near the city center. I’m slowly learning Georgian, but can’t string many phrases together yet. I’ve been speaking Russian with my host family (only the daughter speaks English), taxi drivers, and when I’m in stores. Not speaking in Russian is an act of protest against Russian occupation, but when it’s the only common language with people I interact with, it makes sense to use it. In my experience, people in Zugdidi aren’t as offended by using Russian as in Tbilisi, but I always ask in English before switching to Russian. I don’t say any phrases in Russian that I know in Georgian (hello, please, thank you, goodbye, some numbers, how-are-yous and introductions). I still can’t hear the difference between Georgian and Mingrelian but hope that will come with the more Georgian I learn over the next few months. If you’re interested in learning more about the Georgian language, check out this video!
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks getting acquainted with the Georgian language, Mingrelian cuisine, the town, and its history. Pictured below are the grounds of the Dadiani Palace, one of Zugdidi’s most famous landmarks. I will begin teaching on October 10 and have had some time to spend visiting other regions of Georgia. My grant ends in mid-June, so I have about nine months to explore and learn as much as I can. I can’t wait to share my journey with you! ნახვამდის!