10. Hospitality matters.
One of the first words one learns in Georgia is “supra.” This means, in short, a long evening of a shared feast. One of the key elements in a supra is the “emcee” of the evening, known in Georgia as the “Tamada.” This person (usually a man), chosen for his diplomacy, articulation, and ability to be coherent while seriously inebriated, presides over a multi-hour-evening-long celebration of food and drink, interspersed with toasts by him as well as by anyone in the room. These toasts consist of poems or other decorated types of speech that celebrate of Georgia’s most important values: the country, the church, friendship, women, love.
These toasts consist of poems or other decorated types of speech that celebrate of Georgia’s most important values: the country, the church, friendship, women, love.
In addition to massive amounts of food (traditional dishes described below) and drink (wine is said to have originated in Georgia millennia ago), supras also feature Georgian oral music, which can be spectacularly beautiful, including harmonies and motifs from the Greek and Byzantine era (more about this below). These dinners can be held for any number of reasons, but usually they occur to celebrate a major life event, a birthday, a wedding, a retirement party, the birth of a child, etc.
As a guest, one’s main responsibility is to stay attentive to the action, to drink when the toasts are made, and (advanced graduate seminar) if you get good enough in the language (I never did) to be able to say a toast yourself. Key note: The drinking is seriously intense, particularly for men. (The American Embassy encourages its employees to learn how to vomit surreptitiously when going to the loo to avoid serious alcohol poisoning.) Individuals often consume the equivalent of three or four bottles EACH in an evening. Not for the faint of heart.
9. Food matters.
In the shot below I am standing besides the Georgian food cart that is located in ….Portland, Oregon…started by a Peace Corps couple who served in Akhalts’ikke, a city high in the mountains that border Turkey. This cart features the most popular and memorable Georgian dishes, ones I enjoyed many times during my time in Batumi. Khachapuri is a grilled cheesy bread that is the mainstay of most diets. Lobiani is bread stuffed with seasoned beans. Khinkali is a special kind of dumpling, filled with meat or mushrooms and broth. (Be sure you don’t eat the tip of the dumpling where the points of the dough come together or people will think you are too poor to have manners and don’t get enough to eat.) Badrijaini is my personal favorite – grilled eggplant strips spread with walnut paste and garnished with pomegranate seeds. And Summer Salad is what many might call a “Greek” salad – tomatoes and cucumbers in a vinegar and olive oil dressing. It’s a nice complement to all the bread and cheese. In country, you might also enjoy Mtsvadi, a kind of grilled meat also known as Shaslik, or in the mountains, perhaps a lovely grilled trout.
8. Time is relative.
A German colleague leaving Batumi around the time I arrived gave me the best advice I heard during my time there. “Things in Georgia happen either suddenly or never,” she said, wryly. Truer words were never spoken. The Western concept of scheduling or strategic planning has yet to take root. Meetings are arranged and never take place, no apologies offered; concerts spring forth with no more warning than mushrooms in the forest; one’s presence is requested at times and hours previously allocated to other activities. Once a TV crew entered my class (unannounced) and filmed me and my flustered students, trying to focus on the concept of a thesis statement. We were on the evening news, and I can’t begin to imagine what the citizenry thought of us.
“Things in Georgia happen either suddenly or never.”
7. The Middle Ages is alive and well.
The Golden Age of Georgia, a period when the country assumed roughly its current configuration under Queen Tamar and later King David, was roughly the 13th and 14th centuries when the region broke free of the Turks and briefly fought off the Mongols. Much of Georgia’s culture identify was also formed and fossilized at that time, demonstrating elements of medieval Europe as well as regional elements of heroism, hospitality, bravery, battle, sacrifice, and independence. This link, complete with terrific music, gives you a great visual overview!
Much to my surprise, I discovered those days are still heralded, and in some cases, traditions that flourished then are still maintained nearly 900 years later. I learned that in some of the more remote mountain villages, chain mail (the type of clothing knights wore under their armor to further protect them from attack) had been worn clear into the 20th century. These hamlets, so far up in the Caucasus that they are isolated by snow during six months a year, still sport towers in which families are obliged live for months and years at a time during the potentially fatal blood feuds which can flare up on occasion over things like a woman’s honor or a stolen herd of cattle.
On a more cerebral level, and in a manner similar to Ireland, monasteries of that era assumed the critical role of maintaining the language, literature, and learning in general. It is perhaps why visiting monasteries is one of the few field trips Georgian students ever take. I was fortunate to visit one such during my time in Batumi. At this site where I am kneeling above, one enters buildings that have not changed in style or function since the 4th century.
I learned that in some of the more remote mountain villages, chain mail had been worn clear into the 20th century.
During our visit, I watched in amazement as my university supervisor, chair of the department and a renown scholar in her field, hiked up her skirts and crawled three times under an ancient altar to increase the chance that some (unarticulated) hope would come true. My interactions were more mundane, but hopefully a bit more useful. These lambs with me above were given to the church to distribute to the poor and needy of the area and I was just trying to make sure they didn’t strangle themselves and each other while they waited to be gifted. (I had had to robe myself in a skirt and scarf even to enter the premises.)
6. Culture matters.
Georgian music and dance are beautiful and fascinating to behold. I was charmed by the concept that there is a national dance that each and every child is either obligated or chooses to learn. The strains of the music would float through the halls of my university several evenings a week as a steady stream of children from ages small to tall would come in and take their place on the stage.
There is a national dance that each and every child is either obligated or chooses to learn.
(Ironically, I never saw this piece performed live in its entirety. See #8 above.) When I went to see a scheduled showing, it never managed to happen, but here’s a clip by the national dance troop showing the same work on stage. Note the medieval women’s costumes – truly beautiful.
For a more modern-day interpretation of Georgian dance by the same group, click here.
As for the vocal music, it is haunting and beautiful. Imagine Byzantine polyphony performed by a group of local men in a café or in a village festival on a Sunday afternoon. Everyone, at least most men it seems, can sing like this.
Here’s my favorite women’s trio – a handful of lovely young women in a country setting. But listen to that language. Is it any wonder I only learned 37 words?
5. Religion matters.
Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity (it galls them to admit that Armenia was the first) in the 4th century. Since then, not much has changed, at least to my Western European eyes. The Georgians follow the Orthodox strain of Christianity, the one that stayed a force in the eastern part of the Mediterranean under Constantinople (now Istanbul) as opposed to Catholic Rome in the west. Differences include that the priest performs the rituals behind a screen; people stand during the service, and the Patriarch plays an important role in the social and political landscape. At the moment he is promising to serve as a godfather to the third child in any family to encourage large families, an effort to combat the fecundity of the Turks just over the southern border.
Georgia was the second country in the world to adopt Christianity.
This picture is of the Motsameta Monastery, near Kutaisi, the same place where I was photographed with the lambs above. The tour books say, “The Tskhaltsitela River means ‘Red Water’, deriving from an 8th-century Arab massacre. Among the victims were the brothers Davit and Konstantin Mkheidze, dukes of Argveti. Their bodies were thrown in the river, but the story goes that lions brought them up to the church where their bones were subsequently kept. They are now saints, with their skulls in a casket behind the red velvet curtain, and your wish will be granted if you crawl three times under their tomb, set on two lions on the south side of the church, without touching it.
I think Martina got her wish, because she’s in line to become Rector of her university. (Perhaps I should have tried it…)
4. Language matters.
3. History matters and people are resilient. –Museum of Soviet Occupation
As with many post-Soviet countries and others, between 1921-1946, the Soviet government **under the leadership of a Georgian, our man Stalin** systematically sought out and eliminated by brutal force: all the aristocracy, all the intelligentsia, all the clergy, all the wealthy merchant class, all the artists, all the thinkers, all the deviants, in short, all the people who could have contributed to an educated and rebellious resistance to authoritarian rule and/or now could be leading the growth and development of this brave fledgling democracy. This included, for example, in heartbreaking sepia photos, the head of the ballet, the head of the art museum, young military cadets, leaders of literary salons, minor nobility, boyars, society matrons, you name it, all summarily taken out and shot. The exhibit estimates that between the executions, the deportations, and the military and civilian impact of World War II, nearly 880,000 citizens died – probably in the neighborhood of 25-33% of their total population AND more importantly, like the loss of the Jews by the Nazis in Europe, a huge part of the intellectual and mercantile “seed corn” that could be creating much more creative progress and forward momentum than is currently occurring.
Nearly 880,000 citizens died – 25-33% of their total population.
This exhibit (along with the Treasury in the basement of the museum) deserves serious time by every visitor to Georgia. To my mind, it demonstrates in graphic and heartbreaking detail the suffering that the country faced during most of the 20th century and the obstacles it continues to face as it moves forward. If you experience any frustration by how things are done and why people react as they do in that region, this exhibit may go a long way in illustrating why. A must-see.
2. Don’t make assumptions about what people are thinking.
Georgia’s relation to Russia is one of the most perplexing issues that foreign visitors encounter. Russia was a protector from the Turks in the 19th century and the link to Europe, so they love them. The Soviet Union was the oppressor in the 20th century so they hate them. The Russian language, Russian culture, and Russian education was seen as something to aspire to, so they love them. Putin and his cronies co-opted large sections of the country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be precise, so they hate them. Russia was the biggest trade partner and may be again so they love them. You see the dilemma. For Georgians of a certain age, the Soviet era was seen as a time of stability and security; the shift to the west and a market economy has washed an entire generation up on the shores of an early retirement and a miserly pension system, so there’s no easy answer. The upcoming generation seems to have a rather pragmatic “Gotta live with them and make the best of it” attitude, hence the wry humor of this sticker.
“Fuck nostalgia about Soviet Union.”
1. Finally, you never know what’s going to happen in Sakhartvelo (the Georgian name for Georgia), but you also never know what seeds you may have sown.
My students always delighted and inspired me. Below you see one section of my fourth-year writing class. My job was to work with the literature teacher and to try to introduce the idea of academic writing in a curriculum which had never presented it before (thesis statement, topic sentences, etc.). I had limited success, which actually exceeded my expectations. But I loved my students. All of these young women were the first in their family to attend university, usually the first woman to finish high school. I loved their commitment to learning, their patience with all the new ideas and methods I was throwing at them, their support of each other, their hopes and dreams for the future. Most of these students will probably end up in crumbling schools up in mountainous rural villages, trying to inspire a love of learning in a wiggly group of loud hyperactive children without benefit of heat, technology, or maybe even textbooks. But they know what they want for their country and they have the burning desire to shape the future. My hat is off to them, and I wish for them all the best.