Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Weathery Wedding Weekend, Plus Bonus Better Know a Georgia - the Supra. Or: Get Comfortable and Remember to Rehydrate Often While Reading This Post.

It was, perhaps, while I was wading through a lake where the road used to be on my way to and from my tutor’s home last night, mere millimeters from certain death[1], and saved only by my fortuitous footwear felection[2] this morning[3], that I decided the tale of this weekend must be told quickly, in case this keeps up and I drown tomorrow during a walk to the shop for a Coca-Cola. You see, friends, it has been raining. Quite a lot. Almost literally without end for about a week. The only sustained dry spell since it started raining last Wednesday was, in fact, Sunday during my host brother’s weddings, which is proof positive of very little except probably global warming.[4] But it was a thankful development in an otherwise thankless week, meteorologically speaking.

And the clear of the morning on Sunday turned out to be a portent for the rest of the day, because it was one of the best days I’ve had so far in this country. Really, you’d expect it to be, since my only host brother was getting married, which in this country means not one but two huge parties. But the last wedding I had been to had turned out to be one of the worst days of my service so far, for reasons including the fact that I was trapped halfway up a mountain in absolutely no control of when I could leave and not wanting to drink for fear of getting sick on the way down, so despite my hope that this weekend would be different, I was not totally sure it would be. Turns out I had no reason to fear. It was terrific. Both huge parties were great fun. I took more than 300 photos[5], drank at least 20 glasses of wine[6], gave one extremely well-received toast in Georgian while holding a ceremonial wine-horn, and due to this toast now count dozens of new friends who, I think, are more impressed that I drank the whole horn than that I gave a speech about hospitality and real brotherhood and only had to look at a cheat sheet for a few words. But we’ll get to that part in a bit.

Because it will make the retelling of the day’s events easier for you to understand, I am going to first insert Better Know a Georgia, Bonus Section: Supras[7] into this post.[8] So let’s back up and talk about Georgian tradition for a while, because weddings are – obviously, not just in Georgia – all about tradition. In Georgia, the tradition of the supra is possibly the most important and probably the most memorable and iconic of all their millennia-old traditions. The word “supra” means “table,”[9] and that will be the first thing you see if you are ever privileged enough to attend one.[10] The second thing you see will be food covering every inch of the table, with plates literally stacked on top of each other. That is because a supra is a traditional Georgian feast, and lesson number one of the supra is that there will be more food prepared than an entire city’s worth of people could possibly eat. There will be khatchapuri, and katmis k’ortsi, and salata, and soko, perhaps kartopili, perhaps any number of a dozen other dishes, and most certainly there will be namtzkhvari.[11] There will also be soft drinks and mineral water. These beverages are for the womenfolk and/or children.[12] They are merely tests of your manhood if you have a Y chromosome. Because what you should be drinking instead is wine.

Lesson numbers two through thirty-seven of the Georgian supra concern drinking. Basically, they can all be summed up by saying that you will be drinking. A lot. Drinking is the main activity and the main purpose of a supra. And there is a strict protocol for what you drink, when you drink, and why you drink. The supra is built around the traditional Georgian toast; you only drink when you are toasting to something or someone, at which point you drink “bolomde,” which means, “to the end” of your glass. It is considered rude to drink wine when you are not toasting. It is also, incidentally, considered rude to toast with beer or with your left hand.[13] It is also rude to toast out of turn. This is because the toasts at a supra are led by a man[14] called the “tamada.” The tamada is in charge of giving the first toast during every round of toasting, which usually means he will end up talking for five or fifteen minutes, gesticulating wildly and throwing his vocal pitch around like a boxer throws punches, on the particular topic of the toast and anything that could possibly relate to it, before thrusting his glass into the air and saying “gaumarjos!” which means, “cheers!”[15] Then, at a smaller supra, people around the table each say their own version of the toast before clinking glasses and downing their own. At a larger supra – like a wedding – people do a more informal version of this with those in their immediate table vicinity. After everyone drinks, the “merikipe,” who is the sort of second-in-supra-command, is entrusted to refill everyone’s glasses with wine, to await the next toast. At larger supras – like, again, weddings – there is no one merikipe[16], so you grab the nearest of about 500 liter jugs of wine and refill your own glass.[17] Then the tamada starts his next toast, and you do it all over again.

You will do it all over again many times. At least ten, or it’s not even a decent supra. A really involved supra, over the course of several hours[18], can involve literally dozens of toasts – after each of which, of course, you are expected to make a concerted effort to drink to the bottom of your glass. There is also a general order to the supra, which is changed only slightly depending on the occasion. The first toast is nearly always “Mshvidobas” – to peace. The second is usually “Sakartvelos” – to Georgia. The third, in my experience, is often “Sakartvelos da Amerikas megobrobas” – to friendship between Georgia and America. Although I doubt that this toast is as prominent when there isn’t an American guest present. I haven’t been to enough supras to have the subsequent order memorized yet, but there will be toasts to parents, to children, to ancestors, to neighbors, to love, to God, and to the people sitting at the supra. At a special event, there will be more specific toasts – a wedding supra will include toasts to the groom, to the bride, to love, to long life for the couple, and often to their future offspring. A toast given by a good tamada will usually go on for several minutes. I wish my Georgian was advanced enough to give you a quasi-verbatim example, but it is not. Usually, I listen to a tamada say a bunch of things I don’t understand, then, when he's done, I turn to the person sitting next to me, I raise my glass in the air, and I say, “Ras?” which means, “to what?” and the person summarizes the toast in one or two words.[19] I consider it my goal to figure out the general point of a toast before it is summarized for me, and I consider it a great success if I can sort of understand some of the tangential points the tamada is making. Like all things having to do with language, this is easier when I’ve been drinking.

So that is the basics of the supra.[20] The importance that drinking and toasting hold in this culture can be seen in other parts of life[21], but it all comes together at a supra, and it all comes together most spectacularly at large “event” supras. Wedding supras may be the biggest of them all. The word Georgians use for these events translates into English as “wedding,” but it isn’t a wedding in our sense of the word. In America, the most important part of a wedding is the formal ceremony, which is the part that’s actually called the “wedding.” In Georgia, the formal ceremony is not emphasized.[22] For instance, I have no idea if my host brother even had one. If he did, it’s likely that nobody but the best man and maid of honor were invited, if that. He simply showed up already wearing a ring after the three-week-long vacation he took[23] with his bride. In Georgia, the “wedding” is what we would refer to as the reception, and there are two of them: one at the bride’s family’s house, and then another at the groom’s. At my first wedding supra here, a couple months ago, I looked around at about 200 people and remarked to a coworker, “This is bigger than I was expecting it to be.” He assured me that it was a very small wedding and that we’d go to “better” ones later. These are big parties.

And with big parties come big preparations. Amazingly, these preparations did not start until Friday, two days before the wedding, when an army of relatives descended on my house to start setting up (the men) and cooking (the women). I missed the Friday activity, because I was at work, but much of it consisted of setting up a large nylon tarp along the side of the house, to act as a tent to hold all the people.[24] These tents are de rigueur at Georgian weddings, for whatever reason, but for my host brother’s wedding the tent was to be a vital necessity, because it had been pouring for days. The tarp went up and immediately started gathering pools of water on top of it, which my host brother and I spent a large amount of time Friday evening trying to get rid of, either by catapulting the water off the tarp and into the neighbor’s yard or by scooping it out with buckets. I enjoyed this activity, because it seemed like bonding, and because I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to help with much else in the way of wedding preparation.

Saturday the relatives were back to continue setting up. The women busied themselves preparing an utterly unconscionable amount of food – whole chickens, turkeys[25], pigs, and a cow, along with even more things that were not meat – and the men busied themselves with the rain issue. The constant rain had raised the water table so high that, even protected by a tarp, the lawn where the guests were to sit had been reduced by foot traffic to a muddy mess. Things did not look so good, but everyone kept working. It was pretty impressive, and I wasn’t allowed to help with any of it, because I am the American guest. Also probably because it would have been more trouble than help to figure out a way to explain any instructions to me in Geornglish. So I busied myself taking photos, and became a passing amusement to all the relatives, some of whom I hadn’t met before.[26]

Sunday morning, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the sun was out and things were looking up. The men carted in many wheelbarrowsful of gravel to cover our yard with[27], and people started showing up to the house in suits. I realized that, when I was packing for Peace Corps in America, I had packed my only suit with the rationalization that, “I won’t be able to get this cleaned in Georgia, but I’ll bring it in case I need to wear it for a wedding or something.” So I grabbed it out of the closet for the first time since we swore in as volunteers, and put it on over my long underwear.[28] It was the same reason I carried my camera around all weekend – I only have one host brother, and he was only going to get married once, so this was going to be a one-of-a-kind moment in my service, and I wanted to treat it accordingly. And it was a good idea, because I look really spiffy in all the photos I’m in.

Then we had to wait for my host brother to get dressed – he’s a traditional sort of guy, so he decided to wear a traditional Georgian costume. I am not 100% confident of my knowledge of Georgian traditional costumes, so I am not sure what the exact origins of this costume are, but it is worn during exhibitions of Georgian traditional dance, for dances that represent traditional courtship of a woman by a man. What happens in one of these dances is that the man does a lot of shuffling dramatically in circles around the woman, often doing a ballet-like move on his tiptoes, and swinging his arms around. It’s a very powerful tool for arousal. I might start using it on first dates.

Once he was dressed and everyone was ready to go, we got in the cars to head to the bride’s house for the first wedding supra. The part of the wedding day where you’re getting from one place to another combines Georgians’ love of outsized expression with their love of doing dangerous things in automobiles to form an often truly harrowing experience. My first encounter with this was when I was invited to a wedding by my language instructor during training; we were waiting for the wedding party to show up, and when it did, the lead car came within maybe five inches of running me over. Since then, I had heard these wedding processions in various places several times. This is because a wedding procession, in Georgia, consists of a bunch of cars driving very fast, in a tight bunch, blinking their lights and honking their horns so everyone looks at them. Often, the cars will circle the same place many times before moving on to the actual destination. We did not circle the town square multiple times, but on the way from wedding supra one back to my house, two cars did get in an accident and the car I was in decided that it’d be fun to drive on the sidewalk for a while. So.

After an accident-free first leg of the day’s journey, we arrived at the bride’s house, where there was a nearly identical tent-and-long-table-rows setup in the yard. We proceeded upstairs, to where the bride and groom traditionally hold court before the supra starts. They stand in a line with the best man and the maid of honor, accepting congratulations from people, near a table that shows off the wedding cake and also includes a few bottles of champagne and some champagne flutes. You can stand at this table and give a personal toast to the bride and groom, if you want to start drinking early so as to get a secret head start on everyone who stays downstairs. It was here that I first discovered, to my relief[29], that I was not in fact the best man for the wedding. If you recall, one night last week my host brother pointed to a word in the dictionary that – according to the dictionary – translates as “best man,” and said, “that’s you.” I said, “really?” and he said, “yes,” which apparently in Georgian means, “no.” Perhaps he was attempting to make an affectionate statement that I am like a brother to him and the word was mistranslated. Or perhaps he found another guy to do it two days later. Who knows. Either way, it did not matter that I was not the best man – people came up to congratulate me during the meet-n-greet anyway. Apparently one is supposed to congratulate the family of the bride and groom, and I am close enough. That was pretty cool.

After a short time, everyone went downstairs to start the supra. The wedding supra is set up much like an American wedding reception – the bride, groom, best man, and maid of honor sit at a dais in front of everyone, there’s a dance floor, and there’s also always a DJ. However, DJs in America simply play music, whereas DJs in Georgia ARE the music. They usually have a synthesizer, a drumbeat machine, and a bongo, and they play versions of songs you hear on Georgian radio, except they sing the songs. And they sing really, really loud. The quality of this DJ-karaoke is variable. The guys at this particular wedding, thankfully, were pretty good. There was eating, and dancing, and much toasting, and then, after a few hours, it was on to my house.[30]

The party at my house was a curious dynamic. The second wedding goes exactly like the first, so court was held upstairs, which happens to be where my room is. So there were a bunch of people standing right next to my room. And some of my coworkers hadn’t been to my house before, so they asked where the bathroom was.[31] It all felt like I was much more a member of this household than you would think, me having only lived there for two months. After the meet-n-greet, the party again moved downstairs, and there was yet more eating and drinking. I did my share of drinking, and I met an orthodox priest who is apparently good friends with a coworker of mine, and I took a bunch more pictures, and then I got called up to do a toast.

Ordinarily, this would have freaked the hell out of me. It would be quite difficult, at this point in my language development, for me to ad-lib a toast in Georgian in front of 400 people. I would have ended up saying something like, “I like Tamazi and Tamazi’s family and I hope Irina was in my family in the future.” But, since I thought I was going to be the best man, I had prepared a toast in advance. I wrote it out last week and sent it to a translator I know who works in a friend’s NGO, and then printed out her translation and underlined the difficult words I didn’t know. This was, as they say in the business world, a killer move on my part. So I went up to the front, and stumbled only a little bit[32], and spoke mostly from preparation, only having to look at the paper a few times. My toast, as verbatim as I can recall, went like this: “Tamazi is my host brother, only for two years. But I feel that he is my real brother. He and his family have shown me such hospitality. I am glad that Irina will be in our family, and I hope that she will be a real sister to me, like Tamazi is my real brother. Happiness and long life to you both. Congratulations. Gagimarjot.”[33] After I finished speaking, I drank the entire ceremonial wine horn.

I was a celebrity for the rest of the night. People were congratulating my toast left and right, although as I mentioned earlier, it seemed they were more impressed – fittingly – by my drinking ability than by my toasting ability. People called me “brother,” and clapped me on the back, and offered me more drinks. Which I drank. When in Rome, you know.

I finally went to bed after most people started to leave, around 2am. When I woke up, Tamazi and a man I didn’t know were sitting downstairs, eating supra leftovers[34] and, of course, drinking. I declined to join them in the morning, but after I had spent an entire day at work doing absolutely nothing[35] – the Georgian term for “hung-over” is “pakhmeliaze,” and it is used frequently – I came home to discover…even more drinking! That’s right – there is yet a third part to a wedding ceremony, called the “second day,” and it is when the bride’s parents come to the groom’s house[36] to cut the wedding cake. I missed this part while I was doing nothing at work, but I arrived home to find another mini-supra taking place, and this one I joined in at until I was too tired to continue, at which point I snuck out when I didn’t think anyone was looking.[37]

So that was my weekend, and that was Tamazi’s wedding. It was a really great time, and I’m glad I got to experience a wedding from a family’s perspective, and I’m glad my toast wasn’t a disaster, and I’m glad that Irina seems to be a really cool person. This last part is especially important, of course, because she now lives in the room next to me. I was not expecting there to be an addition to my host family during my service, but I’m glad there was, because my host family was only three people before, and it’s nice to have one more around the house. Also, Irina knows how to play the guitar, so I think I have my winder doldrums activity. Now I just have to figure out how to learn how to learn the guitar in a whole different language.

I hope you packed enough provisions at the beginning of this post to last you the whole way, friends. That is all for now. There are many more iterations of Better Know a Georgia on tap, and I may be going to an actual club[38] for a friend’s birthday and then watching the Illinois-Ohio State football game in Tbilisi this weekend, so there are plenty of fun stories ahead for you. Until next time. Stay warm. And, seriously, go say thank you to your central heating system. It does such a thankless job. And it never gets enough credit. Also your indoor plumbing. Winter’s such a gas.

[1]Not to mention extreme foot soakage and general discomfort.
[2]In days of yore, they used to write s’s like f’s. When this aids in alliteration, the creation of which is the primary priority of my prose, do not think I won’t take advantage. And do not think that I won’t ignominiously ignore the fact that s’s were usually written like f’s only at the end of wordf.
[3]It was raining, and my work loafers, which are bewilderingly and yet life-savingly water-resistant, are still dirty from the weekend, so I selected the winter boots I purchased for Peace Corps and had yet to wear, because they are water-proof hiking boots and because my only other option was decidedly un-waterproof cross-trainers.
[4]My mother thought I was going to say Jesus there, but she cannot prove that it was not instead Neptune, God of the Sea, who approves of my host brother’s nuptials.
[5]Most of the time, I exaggerate numbers, but this time I have not. I haven’t been great about taking photos since I’ve been here, since I have a large camera with many fun features and it is often cumbersome to carry it around, but I realized that this was going to be a unique weekend in my service and that the chance to record it was not going to come around again, so I had my camera with me all weekend and took 343 photos. You can see the best 60 in the “Best Of” album, linked to in the sidebar, and more than 100 other good ones in the other two wedding albums (once I get a chance to upload them).
[6]This number, unlike the previous one, is completely made up, because I have no idea how much I drank. I assume it to have been more than 20.
[7]Or: Where we measure consumption in liters, not in glasses. Or: Let’s put it this way. You probably won’t be going to work in the morning.
[8]Which will now be so large I should probably insert chapters and release an audiobook version.
[9]Although it’s always used to mean the traditional feast I’m about to describe, and never to describe an actual table.
[10]I mean, you could come visit, and then you’d surely see one. Not that I am stressing this, nor do I mean to imply that anyone who visits me will be showered with candy and gifts and food and anyone who does not will probably die penniless and sexless.
[11]I will leave the translation and description of these dishes to the post on food, because this post will already be too big.
[12]Although women can and do drink the wine during big mixed-sex supras at which they are guests.
[13]An occasional pastime, especially at a bar, is toasting to one’s enemies with a beer in your left hand.
[14]This is a country with still-developing modern gender roles, so this person is always a man unless the supra is women-only. Although, really, the role requires a pretty excessive capacity for bloviation, so it’s probably more suited for men anyway, just like ultimate fighting and getting into major traffic accidents. Let’s be honest about these things.
[15]Because I’m certain you were wondering and because you must be equipped with the necessary tools if you would like to come visit Georgia for yourself: this is only the form of the word used if the thing/person being cheered is in the third person and not being addressed. “Cheers to us!” is, “gagvimarjos!” and “cheers to you” is, “gagimarjos.” Please write this down.
[16]Although usually there is still only one tamada, who uses a microphone to bellow toasts to the masses. There can also be two or three tamadas who rotate toast-giving duties.
[17]After, of course, refilling the glass of any women around you, because chivalry is not dead and because God didn’t make women to lift heavy things.
[18]Outside of a wedding, which is two separate parties and takes many hours, but which is also quite large and thus not as full of pressure to drink and do untold numbers of toasts, I have not been to any mega-supras. But I have heard stories from other volunteers of being trapped in a supra for 5+ hours, with few enough people that there is nowhere to hide when you don’t want to drink anymore. At this point there are various strategies. One that I have heard is to text a fellow volunteer and ask them to call you immediately, at which point you pretend it’s your mother calling, which is a good excuse to get out of anything. I have even heard stories that involve successfully getting oneself out of a supra, going to sleep, and then waking up to discover that it hasn’t ended yet.
[19]Hypothetical example: the tamada spends ten minutes talking about love, and true love, and how Georgia was built on love and how Georgians cherish love, and how important it is for the future of the country and indeed for the future of the entire human race, and maybe how all wars would end if we could all remember to love one another, and this is all by way of saying that the happy couple really loves each other, and this will serve them well in this life and in the next, and will lead to many happy progeny, and the continuation of the man’s line forever. The summary for me: “cheers to the bride and groom.”
[20]Supposedly, at the end of a supra, one gives a toast to the tamada before leaving, but this is purely theoretical, because nobody has ever provided evidence that supras actually end.
[21]For instance, my earlier anecdote about being encouraged to take shots, which can substitute for wine as a toasting vehicle if there are only a few people present and/or if you’re with a bunch of men who are intending to get housed beyond comprehension, of cognac in an elementary school before noon.
[22]An example: I was invited to the ceremony part of a Georgian wedding once, during training, by my language instructor. We arrived at the church a few minutes before we were told that the ceremony would start. Nobody was there, and none of the people at the church seemed to have any idea what we were talking about. 20 minutes after the ceremony was supposed to have started, the cars of the entire wedding party screeched up to the front of the church. By this point, another group had swooped in for a different wedding. So our wedding party stood around in the courtyard, waiting and taking pictures of each other, until a priest came out and said that this other wedding was going to take a little while and that after that the priests were busy and didn’t feel like marrying our bride and groom today. Nobody seemed to be too upset at this turn of events, and they all got in their cars to find another church. Whereas, in America, this turn of events would cause a minimum of four fatalities.
[23]During which I found out, from someone else, that he was even getting married in the first place, but that’s a different story. Georgians aren’t really into planning things or alerting you of events in advance.
[24]It also consisted of hanging a cow carcass up on a hook near the door to the bathroom. Talk about things that are fun to see as you’re rounding a corner unexpectedly in the dark.
[25]My family keeps their chickens and turkeys in the back, in the area where the latrine is. Needless to say, my walks to the latrine have been far lonelier this week than they were before. It’s eerie. I half expect to see tumbleweed and a solitary chicken in the corner, chewing on some thistle, muttering about having seen it all coming.
[26]And almost none of whose names I knew. When you’re dealing with a language barrier and all sorts of other issues, it’s impossible to remember names, and even more so when you meet so many people. I now find myself in the difficult position of having met a truly large number of people whose names I don’t remember. And, of course, none of them have forgotten my name, because I am the American, and everyone in town knows my name whether I’ve met them or not. The game is not fair, and I am not looking forward to the first time, however many months from now it may be, when a person who thinks of me as his American brother realizes that I don’t know his name or why the hell I know him.
[27]…forever dashing my dreams of starting a croquet league in the backyard. The grass will never grow back. Scotts Turf Builder has yet to make its way to the developing world.
[28]I had resisted breaking out the long underwear to this point, because it hadn’t been that cold and because older volunteers advised us to keep our uber-cold-weather wear in reserve until we couldn’t stand it any longer, so we didn’t deploy all our weapons too early. But I put it on because the suit is thin and I knew I’d be up to the late hours of the night, and it turned out to be a great decision. For that night, at least, because it’s so comfortable that I’ve been wearing it ever since, and I am truly dreading the day in February when Neptune, god of the sea, blows an extra cold front across the country just because he gets off on that sort of thing, and I have nothing left with which to combat the chill that will find its way to the very depths of my soul.
[29]But, let’s be honest, also to my secret disappointment.
[30]By way of a sidewalk, as mentioned earlier. Also, this was after I ended up waiting in some guy’s car for a completely unexplained 30 minutes. Sometimes you just have to wait, in this country. I wish I had a Game Boy, or something.
[31]The answer to this question, in America, is never, “in the yard, by the chickens.”
[32]It might be even harder to read Georgian in front of 400 people than to say something spontaneously in Georgian in front of 400 people.
[33]I don’t like to brag, but that’s the best toast ever given by anyone who can barely speak a language. I am confident of this. Do not even attempt to dissuade me.
[34]I will be eating these leftovers for the next six weeks. And people don’t have microwaves here, so it will all be cold. It was delicious the first morning-after, like morning-after pizza, but for the next six weeks it will be like eating six-week-old pizza that has not been in the refrigerator.
[35]You try working the morning after drinking an uncountable number of glasses of wine.
[36]Which, after the wedding, is the bride’s house. People live with their extended families in Georgia, and houses are retained by males, so a new bride will go immediately after the wedding day to live with her new husband’s family.
[37]When people have been drinking for three days, it’s easier to catch them not paying attention.
[38]What “dance club” actually ends up meaning, here, is probably going to be pretty funny. We will have to see. This particular club is owned by a member of a Georgian soccer team who I met during training and who has become a good friend of my friend back in Gori. I have been promised a spot on the “VIP list” at this club for my friend’s birthday party. You cannot make these things up.

1 comment:

booninite said...

hold the phone.
you actually grew facial hair.
can i even tell you how proud i am of you?

pretty proud.