In Georgia, I arranged for a driver, Zura, to take me to a little farm in the countryside, famous for its biodynamic gardens. I would spend one night on my own with the family, and then meet up with some work colleagues to go winetasting the next day. Arranging all of this was a feat. Although I knew the driver from other trips, we’d always had my friend Kara doing all the talking and translating. The Georgian driver did not speak English, but I knew he was trustworthy and that my basic Russian skills could at least get us by.
He dropped me at the inn, after a decent-ish conversation during the 2-hour drive (oh, who am I kidding? Awkward, half-assed conversation and then 1:45 mins of silence). I had figured out he knew the family, and he’d confirmed the son spoke fluent English, but the parents did not.
At the family farm, the elderly father gave me a tour. He explained his son was away for the weekend at a wine conference. So, there we were: Russian was now our common language and I was about to be a huge letdown, conversationally. I said I was a writer, which he assumed meant journalist, which I could not unexplain. He treated me with respect and deference, and I felt awful and fraudulent.
Turns out, I was the only guest at the inn. After an awkward tour, and an equally awkward (but interesting) demonstration of the traditional Georgian technique for making bread in a wood-fired oven, I got tired of being looked at like the village idiot. I went for a long walk around the town, finding food and water, at least. Feeling rather stupid that, here I was, all interested in these people and their biodynamic farm, and I had about 5 minutes of conversational ability on me. So here is an earlier article by someone who, ya know, actually managed to talk to this family.
I walked back to the inn, dreading the long evening before me, and thankful I at least had a book to read. I sat in the garden, reading and wishing I had a glass of wine and some other people around to chat with.
Finally, out of sheer boredom, I went to my room and took a little nap. I knew dinner was at 8 or so, and was appalled that they were cooking dinner just for me. I could hear a bustle in the kitchen, with the wife and a friend cooking up a storm. The husband said “supra,” which I understood to be a Georgian feast. But, wait, there’s clearly no one here.
Two men were setting up a long table in the garden. It could seat at least 20. Oh, dear lord–are they going to all this trouble for me? I couldn’t ask. Food started coming out of the kitchen, mountains of food. Caucasus Ranges of food. This cannot possibly all be for me, so what in the hell is up?
Two large vans pull into the yard, and disgorge about 20 people. People! I rejoice!
The people are all…all…men people. All men people speaking Russian. I realize, I am now sharing a small inn, with shared toilets, with 20 Russian-speaking men. Large carafes of wine are being placed on the table. Twenty Russian-speaking, drunken men. This cannot possibly get any worse. I look at the flimsy door to my room, with its flimsy lock, and begin pondering barricade techniques.
The men begin taking their seats around the table, and another car arrives with four men (yay, more dudes!) in traditional Georgian dress. The owner of the inn comes over to me, accompanied by a blond man and says, in Russian, “Here is my good friend who will sit with you tonight.” The man smiles at me, extends a hand, and says, in English (blessed, blessed English), “Hello, I am Ivan. I will be translating for you. Will you join us for the supra?”
Why, things might just be looking up…
I sit, the only female at the table, while the inn owner’s wife and another woman bring out plates and plates of delicious food. Ivan pours me a glass of the sweet white wine. The men in traditional Georgian dress are the tamada–the leader of the supra–and his accompanists, who will be leading the toasting and celebration for the evening.
Holy shit…I am at a real Georgian supra! I feel like I’ve found a unicorn.
The tamada begins with the traditional prayers and invocations, which take a phenomenally long time. I learn that all the men are businessmen from either Russia or Georgia on a joint, dual-nation business trip, and they’ve spent the day winetasting in the Kakheti region. This is the highlight of their day too. Even better? The vans are waiting to drive them back to Tbilisi after the supra.
Ivan explains that after each toast, we must drain our wineglasses. However, because I am female, I am excused from that tradition. I politely fake a sip after each toast, knowing I need to pace myself.
The tamada sings and recites poetry–long, epic poems and stories. I do not understand the words, but I understand the tradition. It doesn’t need translation–it is beautiful. We are toasting to God, for creating this beautiful country and bequeathing it to the Georgian people. We are toasting the inimitable mountain ranges, the ineffable beauty of the forests, the blueness of the sky, etc. etc. The accompanists play guitars that complement the tamada’s spoken word–think, old school slam poetry. Ivan translates some, until I tell him he doesn’t need to any more. I can tell he is getting tired of translating, and I need him for just one more thing.
After all the drinking, the men’s tongues have loosened and a surprising majority are quite fluent in English, but reluctant to admit it. One of the younger Russian men is introduced to me, but refuses to shake my hand, saying (in decent English) how much Americans disgust him. I do not take this personally. I smile at him and say, “We’re not all what you think.”
Other guests have joined in the toasting–the tamada controls who can toast. You must ask permission, and he must allow it. I ask Ivan to tell the tamada that I would like to offer a toast. Ivan looks alarmed–understandably. A woman and a foreigner–recipe for absolute disaster in his book. I tell him it is okay, I know how to do it. He is trying to be polite, but he clearly doesn’t believe me. He’s nice about it and asks anyway.
The tamada is surprised, too, but allows me my turn. Ivan translates for me.
I toast, first, to the tamada, as is traditional. Thanking him for allowing me to speak–and thanking the group for indulging me for addressing them in English rather than in Georgian or Russian. Thanking him for the toasts and songs that were so beautiful and poetic that translation was not necessary. Then I toast the men of the group, for accepting a woman and a foreigner at their dinner. The table becomes silent. I toast our hosts, the Nikolaishvilis are renowned as generous hosts–but I also toast the women who have worked so hard to provide us with this delicious feast. Ivan is translating his butt off, quite well. We make a good team. I speak, pause; he translates. I speak.
I offer thanks for the privilege–along with the other visitors at the table–of being here in Georgia, this incomparable country, the privilege of enjoying its hospitality, its food, the kindness of its people.
I deliberately save my ace in the hole for last. I surprise them all by finishing with the traditional Georgian toast: Sakartvelos Gamarjos!
Ivan looks at me like I had just parted the Red Sea. I may have milked it a bit. But, damn, it was good. I got applause. And then the band began to play a song in my honor: Home, Home on the Range. And they sang, in English.
Ivan tells me he is impressed, that my toast was better than any American politician he’s ever heard. The men begin coming over to shake my hand. The tamada, through Ivan, expresses his approval. A Georgian man from Tbilisi explains to me that he is a widower with three sons, and offers to marry me, saying he needs a good woman like me to help raise them. The young Russian man who hates Americans comes and sheepishly shakes my hand. He says, “I still hate Americans.” And I say, “Maybe you can say you don’t hate just one.” He nods his head thoughtfully and retreats.
Finally, the men pile into the vans and head back to Tbilisi. I reel to my room, dizzy and headachy from the sweet, sweet wine. And the sweet, sweet taste of victory. Americans, represent, baby.
Even better? I don’t have to share the fucking bathroom with anyone.