Lessons from a Grocery List

I think the conflation of my three biggest takeaways from the first half of my program in Georgia occurred in the middle of a Spar supermarket at 6pm on a Monday night. 

It’s not the most glamorous setting nor is it the most exciting story I have to tell. It was not even my first “I’m in Georgia” moment. That moment belongs to the rugby game I went to a week ago between the Georgian and Italian national rugby teams. In the middle of a passionate crowd, waving the Georgian flag, chanting “Sa! Kar! Tve! Lo!” and watching the celebratory fireworks over the Batumi skyline it really sunk in for the first time that I was living in Georgia. 

But it was an unassuming grocery store on the west side of the city where I had a moment of epiphany about my progress and my goals for the program: be able to laugh at yourself, language is power, and trust your gut (but believe the best in others). 

My grocery list consisted of vegetables, some kind of meat for a sandwich, and sparkling water. I decided to begin my shopping trip with the vegetables. I picked through the fresh vegetables and parsed through the labels and prices listed in Georgian. Each vegetable was separated into their own bag and placed into my basket. The first third of my list was complete. Or so I thought. Apparently I had to weigh each bag and print out a barcode for each vegetable. That was well past my Georgian proficiency so I was relieved when a shopkeeper came up to me and snatched my selections from me and proceeded to take them to the weighing counter. She led in Russian (much to my surprise) so we  continued from there. I could tell she was a little irritated at my rookie mistakes, but I started cracking some small jokes at my own expense and the mood lightened considerably. It’s okay to make a fool of yourself for the sake of learning. 

Our interaction continued to the meat counter where she helped me pick out something for a sandwich. Frankly, I did not recognize a single meat available and I told her as much. We talked enough for her to recommend a type of bologna and that was that. It was such a simple interaction but it would have been virtually impossible for me to engage in such a smooth Russian conversation just two years ago. I felt so much progress, and more importantly, the power that being able to switch between more than three languages to negotiate even the most simple of needs. 

Finally, my supermarket event concluded with a man offering to help carry a heavy water bottle up to the counter. Now, the bottle wasn’t too heavy and I’m not generally accustomed to strangers offering to help me carry things. But in Georgia that is simply the norm. No strings attached (usually); just a little offered help. In this moment I felt a moment of culture shock: in the US I would feel incredibly uncomfortable with a stranger helping me this much with carrying my groceries. But there was no imminent danger. Georgians are incredibly helpful and chivalrous, and this was a moment that I understood the value of believing the best in someone especially if there aren’t any immediate red flags. Some people are willing to help just for the sake of it. 

And so the first part of my program concluded with an incredibly successful Russian interaction and some good-natured culture shock. I am feeling more and more comfortable in my new city with each passing day and I am looking forward to the next and final half of my time here. 

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