February: Old Friends in Tbilisi, New Friends at the FIS Freestyle World Cup

It’s springtime in Zugdidi, but I’m still catching up on writing from this winter! I had a very long break from February 10 to March 20 because the university held final exams (which I had no part in) and a spring break. So, I decided to spend almost every day doing something exciting! I packed a lot of activity into that time and I’m excited to share it with you.

Old Friends in Tbilisi

My friend Sam and her boyfriend Dillon visited for a week starting February 11. We stayed in Old Town Tbilisi and enjoyed a lot of khachapuri, tone bread, and khinkali; did sightseeing in Mskheta; fed hotdogs to the stray dogs at Mtatsminda amusement park; and were hit by a snowstorm surge on the Georgian Military Highway en route to Kazbegi.

FIS Freestyle World Cup in Bakuriani

After we parted ways at the end of the week, I found my way to the bus stop for the FIS Freestyle World Cup volunteers. Back in November, representatives from the Georgian Ski Federation (GSF) came to my university to recruit volunteers. The event started officially on February 19 and ended on March 5. They were looking for young people with skiing experience and B2+ English skills. I fit the bill and signed up with the promise of a week of free accommodation, transport to Bakuriani, meals, a ski jacket, a hat, and a ski pass.

Bakuriani is a ski resort in south-central Georgia. It’s one of the main ski destinations in the country, located in the Lesser Caucasus mountain range. Many locals and tourists visit Bakuriani in the winter to ski, snowboard and enjoy a variety of other activities. It’s a large resort so there are many restaurants, hotels, condos, and entertainment. Bakuriani is close to the town of Borjomi, where the famous mineral water springs are located. There are seven chair lifts, one gondola, and 11 T-bars. There are 18 miles of trails on the mountain and a one-day adult lift ticket costs about $15.

Once on the bus departing Tbilisi, I realized that I was the only non-Georgian involved and for most of the ride sat quietly reading while a rowdy group in front poured each other chacha shots into tiny plastic cups they brought, music from a portable speaker blasting and headache-inducing vape aromas swirling. Halfway there, the chaperones read off a list of names and mine wasn’t on it and I felt a bit like a stowaway. We arrived at “Ratis Skola” (Rati’s Ski School, or as the ski rental lady called it, “School of Rat”) and had an introductory meeting fully in Georgian. I exposed myself by bravely raising my hand to admit I did not understand anything, I am so sorry, could someone please translate? It turns out almost everyone thought I was Georgian up until then and was baffled by my presence.

We received our room assignments and I was relieved to find out my name was on at least one list. I quickly found friends who were excited to have a foreigner among them for the week. My roommates were three sweet girls who are university students in Kutaisi and Tbilisi. I was charmed by the vibe at Ratis Skola. The dining room was super cozy and was very Waldorf (the teaching style, not Gossip Girl).

The first night, one of the Mariams took me to the Champion Village to see the opening ceremony and to meet her friends from Borjomi. I was immediately given a tequila shot and had to strategically turn down the non-stop offering of more. This was the first time a Georgian ski resort had hosted an international competition of this caliber, so they pulled out all the stops. There was a concert each Saturday night throughout the competition and each evening there was a DJ set. The eminent Georgian band Bedford Falls performed the first concert and put on quite the show.

The first day of skiing at Bakuriani was a training day, so our levels were assessed. Some volunteers were assigned roles to help maintain the course, advanced skiers were bestowed the title of “slipper” (sleeper, with a Georgian accent) while others helped communicate important information to the athletes. I was a slipper at first but then was asked to be the start gate announcer as the only native-English-speaking volunteer. The slippers had a lot of hard work keeping the course free of loose snow. My job turned out to be a lot of standing around and drinking tea “to protect my voice”. Finally, on the third day, I got to announce the qualifications round for men’s and women’s ski cross. The whole bit was me saying “Skiers, to the gate! Skiers, ready! Attennnnntion!” and pressing the button that opened the gate. I was nervous I’d mess up and one of the tall German coaches would yell at me but I followed signals from the Swiss Timing guy and the FIS lady with the radio and had no problems.

I was there from February 18 until February 25. Most mornings, we were asked to be at the mountain at 7 a.m., meaning we had to be awake around 5 a.m. to have breakfast, get loaded on the bus, and travel the 20 minutes to the resort. In Bakuriani, there are two main sections of the mountain, Didveli, and Kokhta. Most accommodation, as was the case with Ratis Skola, is closer to Didveli. I was thrilled! Nothing in Georgia starts before 10 a.m. (except my one 9 a.m. class last semester which only 3 students attended) so I adjusted to Georgia time and found it difficult to wake up before 8:30 a.m. As much as I tried to keep an early-morning routine, I truly had nothing to wake up for. So, now I had a purpose for waking up and an excellent excuse to not stay up late partying with the other volunteers! The others were not happy about this wake-up time. “Can you believe we have to wake up at 5 a.m.?,” “Who do they think we are? We are not slaves!” they said. “I know it’s really early, but once you’re awake and moving it won’t be so bad. It’s okay!” I said.

Actually, Camryn, it is NOT okay.

– one of my roommates

My positive attitude was tested because every morning we were running at least an hour late. But, when we arrived at 8:30 or 9 a.m., we were told to wait for more instructions and had to entertain ourselves in the lunch lodge until 11 a.m. Our chariot was an old yellow bus driven by Koka, a nice man who also didn’t like to wake up early just to wait around for us. He’d arrive at the resort between 4 and 6 p.m. to bring us back to Ratis Skola. Even with chains, it was a challenge to drive the final stretch to the school so everyone started pumping their fists and yelling “KO-KA! KO-KA! KO-KA!” until he stepped on the gas and wrangled the minibus up the steep, snowy road. In the below photos, you can see Koka standing outside in the snow wondering where everyone is because it is 6:30 a.m. and it is time to go. The bus also made frequent appearances in children’s artwork around the ski school which I thought was very cute.

There were a few days when the wind was strong enough to close the gondola and lift so we couldn’t use the free time to ski. The volunteers and competitors had to catch rides on snowmobiles and snowcats to get to the top of the course. The slippers, painters, and flag setter-uppers would work on the course but then the competition would be postponed or delayed due to wind. All this time I spent trying to stay out of the way which meant hanging out in the break room with the other volunteers who had nothing to do. The break room became a smoking lounge and because I was the only non-smoker I spent a lot of time standing outside. I decided the best use of my free time was not to watch the youngsters make TikToks between their smoke breaks so I started bringing my book with me and had a nice time reading. Then, I was introduced to Margo who recognized me from the Trans-Caucasian Trail office in Mestia. We got along really well and I even met up with her again in Mestia a few weeks later! Between doing nothing, we’d go back down to the base for our free lunch.

Ski cross bar room

My last day was the most fun. It was supposed to be the ski cross finals but the wind was raging all day and though we put in the preparations for the competition, we all knew it was fruitless. A staff member from the US team walked into the break room and asked about the mountain range we could see in the distance, so we got to chatting, then everyone got to chatting when the Latinos and Swiss guy from the course building team joined us, mate tea was passed around and then… there was chacha. The finals were canceled an hour later.

It was a fascinating week to observe cultural differences. Georgia is a polychronic culture, meaning there’s less emphasis on adhering to schedules and punctuality compared to the monochronic culture found in the US and parts of Europe. I felt crazy most mornings because the other volunteers were dawdling, taking their time, and did not share the same sense of urgency I felt. We were told the bus driver was coming at 6:30! That means we have to be ready to go at 6:30, so we can get there at 7 a.m.! I was consistently the first one on the bus and would sit there for 20 minutes because I was too stubborn to go back inside to wait.

Being late in the morning never had any consequences, but there were plenty of moments I overheard FIS employees give directions to the volunteers and got second-hand anxiety witnessing the clash in understanding as to whether “We have to go paint now!” means now, or in five minutes. It quickly occurred to me that northern Europeans and Georgian working styles are like night and day. I noticed these misunderstandings were frustrating FIS officials. When they found out I was American, they’d start to vent a little and I found myself acting as a mediator trying to provide context for the discordance.

One of the officials from Italy asked me if it was my first time in Georgia. “Yes, but I’ve been here a while now. Is it your first time as well?
“Yeah, and I hope it’s my last,” he said before ranting about time management.
I understand that there are jobs to be done and any competition at the international level is a big deal and there are big expectations. But it made me sad he felt that way. I wondered, did anyone conduct a training for FIS and GFS on cultural differences? Did anyone think to do that for the young volunteers? Understanding why we’re frustrated by these differences doesn’t make everyone act the same, but it might make everyone less annoyed.

Overall, this week was one of my favorites in Georgia. In addition to my roommates and Margo, I became friends with all the other volunteers staying at Ratis Skola. One night, we took a long walk around town and ended up eating gas station hotdogs and drinking chacha shots in re-purposed plastic water bottles purchased from a “family store”. An hour later, my friends drunkenly gathered themselves in a circle on the sidewalk to sing a traditional Georgian song, which made me tear up.

The whole week, I felt very included despite not knowing what was going on most of the time. Everyone was so welcoming and warm and I was delighted to get to know more Georgians close to me in age. It was an unforgettable experience and despite all the chacha, I’ll always remember the fun I had with new friends.

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