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Archive for the ‘Fulbright’ Category

Temper your expectations. Your project will change, and it is highly unlikely that you will accomplish everything you set out to do in your grant proposal, or accomplish it at the pace or in the exact way you originally intended (for better or worse). While the Fulbright program is looking for self-motivated researchers, there are no points off if your project doesn’t turn out quite the way you thought it would. It is more important to be a good “cultural ambassador” at your host institution and among the community in general.

Travel domestically. You’re technically only allowed 14 days out of country as a Fulbright grantee, but domestic travel in Georgia makes sense in several other ways. Transport, food, and lodging are all very affordable here. The Georgian landscape is highly diverse, with every climate from subtropical beaches to alpine mountains–all within a very small area. See the Georgia Bucket List for must-see sites.

Keep a journal. It needn’t be consistent, organized, or literary– bulletpoints will do, and you can always elaborate when you feel compelled. So many interesting and/or funny things will happen in your grant period that you will forget them if you don’t write them down. Like the time you saw a man in a three-piece suit carrying a turtle at arm’s length down a residential street. Or the time your coworker asked you what “S&M” means in front of your supervisor.

Budget. I’ll be the first to admit that my budgeting skills usually consist of checking my bank account after a major purchase to make sure I haven’t overdrawn. It’s good to at least set general goals so you don’t get any surprises: know (roughly) when and how much your grant payments will be, keep track of substantial purchases, figure out how much of your grant money you’ll need to have left when you leave the country to keep yourself off friends’ couches at home, and then figure out about how much you ought to spend per month between now and your departure to make that happen. Over time, you will learn how much your average day’s food should cost, and try to stick to it aside from special occasions. The favorable exchange rate and relatively low cost of living means your concept of money will undoubtedly alter–you’ll understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. Paying more than 5 lari for anything food-related will cause you to pause and question your purchase, even as you contemplate a weekend ski trip or a souvenir kilim. You will barter even on cheaper things and still consistently feel cheated. Prepare to be enraged by the prices of everything from public transport ($.30/ride Tbilisi, $2.25/ride NYC) to birth control ($1/month Tbilisi, $3-20/month U.S. with insurance) upon returning to the States.

Be assertive. If something is bothering you, speak up about it right away. Between the language barrier and different cultural norms, some people might not understand why or even if their behavior is bothering you–whether it’s your supervisor giving you important projects at the very last minute, your cab driver asking overly personal questions, or your landlady thinking its okay to use her spare key and come into your apartment without telling you first. If you don’t clear the air, these problems can build into resentment of your host country, leading to an outburst or to constant feelings of frustration that will detract from the overall experience.

Cultivate both local and expat social circles. There is nobody lonelier than a lonely expat. I was very fortunate to arrive here in September and already have a group of Georgian friends I have known since high school to hang out with. Tbilisi is known for its art and film festivals, and villages are known for their hospitality, so it’s likely that you’ll end up with a large group of Georgians at some point. But it is also extremely helpful to get connected with the expat community–they can help on everything from archival research to grocery shopping, in addition to local events like weekend ski trips, banya, Work-in-Progress talks, pub quiz, etc.

Go to Fulbright conferences. Fulbright hosts multiple regional conferences per year, inviting students from across a region to present their projects. The conferences usually have a broad topic (public spaces, language learning, etc.), so you will meet students researching in a wide variety of disciplines. In most cases, your embassy contact will forward an invitation to you if they know your research interests are relevant to an upcoming conference. Another benefit is that participants are almost always reimbursed for their travel and are provided with accommodations in the host city–who would turn down that opportunity?

Find a good language teacher and stick with it. Georgian is a difficult language to learn, made even more difficult by the fact that so few people learn it, there are not a whole lot of resources. You will also notice that because it is not commonly taught, no tried-and-true method for teaching Georgian as a foreign language has yet been developed–so it seems like every teacher has a different approach, system, and way of classifying verbs/conjugations. Find a good teacher as soon as possible and stick with that person to minimize confusion. I worked with two unhelpful private tutors and ended up at Language School Georgia, a company established by a longtime Georgian teacher for foreign diplomats. While the quality of instruction is very good and more structured than regular private tutoring, classes are also much more expensive.

Keep reading material on you at all times. Even if you think you won’t need it. I’ve spent a lot of time this year dealing with unexpected waiting. Sometimes your marshutka inexplicably stops for twenty minutes. Sometimes your appointment is an hour late. Sometimes the people at the cafe forget to fill your order and your soup doesn’t come for ages. These things happen frequently. So keep your kindle/paperbacks/magazines on hand. On that note, only bring books that are absolutely necessary; consider scanning or copying only the relevant pages if you’re dealing with an obscure academic text unavailable in digital format.

Don’t spend too much on housing, but don’t scrimp either. Unless you’re bringing family with you, there is absolutely no reason for a grantee to pay any more than $500 (800-ish GEL) rent for an apartment in Tbilisi. A really nice apartment in a downtown historic neighborhood with proximity to public transportation can be costly, but the expat community is such that a roommate to split the rent shouldn’t be hard to come by. That said, you’ll still be living here for almost a year, and the money you save getting a really crappy place will not be worth feeling miserable for months on end. Pass over any place that lacks basic insulation, has sketchy heating, weird smells, or no internet (if you need internet on a daily basis, find an apartment where you’re sure it will be as consistent as possible–trying to get work done in cafes here will just make you hate Georgians).

Oh and this is a small but helpful one–bring a student ID, even if it’s expired. You can get student rates at most museums, but they usually want to see a card and Fulbright doesn’t give out IDs. You can show them your grantee ID number, but this will cause more confusion than it’s worth.

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Last week I attended a regional conference for Fulbright research students of central and eastern Europe, located in Prague (given America’s reaction to recent events, it may have been safer to hold it in Tbilisi). The conference topic, “Citizens in Public Spaces” was broad enough to encompass a diverse cross-section of arts and research: photography, urban planning, tourism, sociology, heritage management, public health, musicology, environmental advocacy, law, theater, history, and architecture.

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

following some lectures at the National Technical Library

Our group of about thirty students was kept busy with lectures on local urban issues, presentations from the conference participants, walking tours, and other activities intended to get us engaged with the city (a critical mass bike ride, visit to a farmer’s market, dinner in a recently-restored historic train station, blindfolded “sound walk,” etc.) While the Prague nonprofit activists went out of their way to tell us how difficult it was to promote civic engagement in the Czech Republic, I was still impressed by how much more active and organized local residents were when compared to my experiences in Tbilisi (my favorite idea was the CorruptTour, a guided tour that takes participants to visit sites of municipal corruption, while discussing their impact on the city). I also noticed substantially more environmental awareness–use of glass bottles instead of plastic, efforts at recycling, the woman at the market who didn’t wrap my chocolate bar and my juice in separate plastic bags and then put them both in another plastic bag, etc.

if you're visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

if you’re visiting Prague anytime between March and November, be prepared to deal with hordes of geriatric EU tour groups

The conference came at a good time for me, as we are nearing the end of our grant periods and beginning to reflect on what (if anything) we’ve managed to accomplish over the past several months. It was validating to hear other people facing the same issues I have (most notably the lack of transparency and civil engagement that characterizes post-Soviet space), as well as interesting to hear the creative ways some students found to get things done.  I am still not sure how I feel about federally funding certain arts-related projects, however. Call me a rube, but I’m not really sold on circus-dramatic training, video installations, soundscapes, or anything that uses the word “whimsy” without air quotes. Some projects just came off a bit like Buster working on his cartography/18th century agrarianism/archaeology degree.

Anyway, several students and I decided to stay behind after the conference to experience Prague at a slower pace, an approach I fully recommend given the grueling three-day conference schedule. Below are some recommendations of things to do, see, and eat if you have a few free days in the city:

Things to do:

  • Take a tour of the Tower Museum, halls, and dungeons, all of which have been carefully restored and consolidated since the structure sustained serious damage in the final days of WWII. If you’re into photography, it is definitely worth it for the views of Old Town. If you’re into being infantile, there are plenty to historic interiors in which to pose when the tour guide is not looking.
  • On a nice day, walk around Prague Castle. We took the tram up the (rather steep) hill to the castle complex, which dropped us off at the back entrance by the Royal Gardens–these were not only beautiful, but quiet and free of the throngs of tourists occupying every other historical/cultural site in the city. Entrance is somewhat expensive, so we decided to walk around the castle and cathedral exterior before proceeding back down the hill (lined with shops and cafes overlooking the city, as well as the impressive Lobkowicz fine arts museum).
  • Visit the KGB Museum, which is basically an overenthusiastic Russian local’s personal collection of Soviet military memorabilia (not specific to the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia). While it is somewhat expensive, I thought it was worth it for the scope of the collection along with the owner’s knowledge and enthusiasm.
  • Take a walk around Kampa Island (right off the Charles Bridge on the castle side), populated by uppity swans, contemporary art installations, and locals walking their dogs. It is much more relaxed than the public spaces in Old Town, which tend to become overcrowded in the middle of the day.
  • See the Mucha Museum. Most people are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha through his art nouveau posters for the actress Sarah Bernhardt, when Mucha actually created a staggeringly diverse body of work for decades (before arrest by invading Nazis destroyed his health). The museum basically tells the story of how one great artist was given free rein to design almost everything for his beloved, newly-liberated home country, from municipal buildings to postage stamps.
  • Apparently, stare at the astronomical clock for hours. Seriously. Huge crowds of people stand around this thing, blocking the whole Old Town Square, at all hours of the day and night for a chance to photograph the little statues that come out and twirl around every hour, on the hour. It does, admittedly, have a fascinating history–but come on people.

Tourists_at_the_Astronomical_Clock_in_Prague_2008-08-06

Places to eat:

  • Beas, Tynska 19/Na Porici 1046-24/Vladislavova 24. Great for all of us in the Caucasus without any good Indian cuisine. The branch we went to, not far from the old town square, featured a buffet that goes half off starting at 7pm (as they close at 8.30 and want to get rid of any extra food). It’s also vegetarian, for all you herbivores out there.
  • U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi pork knuckle (with camembert and salad behind). This is a country that appreciates mustards.

    U Tri Ruzi (The Three Roses), Husova 10. Definitely the best food I ate in Prague, and what I’m guessing is a great selection of house and imported beers. We ordered the bacon Emental burger and the house specialty, beer-roasted pork knuckle (entrees are generally large enough for two people), as well as the gratinated Camembert appetizer, which comes with a side salad so we could feel healthy. Beer is available in small mugs, so you can sample several throughout the meal instead of just sticking to one or two. I couldn’t get enough of anything. Try to go at off-peak hours though, as it is increasingly popular with large groups of tourists and families.

  • A farmer’s market. Prague has several farmer’s markets all over the city open on different days of the week (not just weekends). I found it a good way to sample a variety of Czech food without overspending or resorting to the Times Square-esque hot dog carts colonizing Wenceslas Square. One tip: the trdelnik (grilled spiral pastries) look way more appetizing than they actually are, so unless you’re really into trying everything new or its nutty-sugary coating wears down your resistance, try something else for dessert.

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