Saturday, March 1, 2008

Better Know A Georgia, Part Whatever Plus One: The Supra. Or: Seriously, you want to come to this country.

I am not one who usually lacks for words, and yet I keep trying to start this piece on the Georgian supra, so that you, the fresh-faced new volunteer, will be properly informed when you finally get here, and I keep drawing blanks. Once you have been here for a while, the word “supra” and the word “Georgia” just fit together so naturally that it is hard to imagine one without the other, and just as hard to describe the both of them in a way that fully captures what the supra is to Georgia, and to Georgian people. While Georgia is rapidly modernizing, it is and always will be primarily a land of traditions. There are traditions here for every time and for every occasion. But paramount of these, not only in the perceptions of volunteers but in the perceptions of the Georgian people themselves, is the tradition of the supra.

The supra combines the most cherished and most legendary characteristics of the Georgian people: they love hospitality, they love to party, and they really love wine. So a tradition in which a person will open his or her home to others for what could nearly be termed an orgy of food and wine – perhaps to celebrate an occasion, and perhaps for no reason at all – could not be more suited to their sensibilities. It is said that the supra is intended to evoke the Last Supper; indeed, Georgians treat each supra like a Last meal, and this is what makes a supra so enjoyable, but also so problematic, on some occasions, for volunteers. Excess is the name of the game at a supra, and if excess is not something you are comfortable with – especially when it comes to alcohol – you will have to stand your ground amidst people who, at least at first, will be confused that you are rebuking their hospitality. But if you know what you’re getting into, and you stay smart about your limits and your surroundings, then it is entirely possible that you will take nothing but excellent memories away from the supras you share with friends, family, and coworkers here. At the very least, it is likely that supras will dominate your anecdotes for friends and family back home. “You drank what out of what?” will probably be a frequent question. “Something out of a big ceramic horn,” you will say. “I don’t remember what or why. It was six hours into the supra.”

I am sure you have read or heard something about supras by now, and know the very basics. Supras can involve as few as two and as many as hundreds of people; everyone comes together to eat and drink (usually wine, occasionally liquor of some variety, but never beer, which is only for informal occasions) and give elaborate toasts for everything from peace to friendship to relatives. The supra is run by a man (always a man, unless it’s a female-only supra – this is, after all, a country governed by tradition) called the “tamada,” who decides when, and to what, each toast will be. Since a guest is always given special treatment at a supra, and you will always be a guest in this country, you may sometimes be offered the position of tamada, despite your initial lack of language ability and knowledge of supra customs. You are absolutely free to beg out of this. However: know that it is tradition, when the tamada is being chosen, for the person who is asked to be tamada to refuse several times before relenting. So, if you are asked and do not feel comfortable leading the supra, you will have to refuse more forcefully than perhaps you might think.

The tamada will decide when to raise glasses, and in some places or situations may decide what the subject of the toast is, but the order of toasts in a supra is actually relatively fixed (some volunteers claim that it is rigidly fixed, but, in my experience, this order is a little more variable than tradition would technically dictate). Once you learn what the usual order is among those you tend to supra with, this fact will make keeping up during the supra much easier, since you will only need to hear and successfully decipher one or two words in someone’s toast to know generally what is being said – which is good, because when drinking is involved, usually difficult-to-understand Georgian men become impossible-to-understand, slurring, shouting Georgian men. The first toast is always, “Mshvidobas” – to peace. But the tamada will not simply say, “Mshvidobas gaumarjos” (“Cheers to peace”). He will spend between 30 seconds and five minutes talking. I wish I could tell you what he will talk about, but you’d have to have amazing language ability to follow the many digressions and explications in a typical Georgian toast. Victory is understanding the one- or two- word subject of the toast (it is also, incidentally, the literal translation of “gamarjoba,” and the root of “gaumarjos,” which translates colloquially to “cheers” but technically means, “may he be victorious”). The tamada will talk for five minutes, sometimes with theatrical arm gesturing and shouting, and then often you will ask what the toast was about, and receive a two-second answer (“He was toasting to your brother.”). Subsequent toasts will include: a toast to the occasion of the supra, if there is one; a toast to the guests, if there are any (which there always will be, if you are in attendance); a toast to Georgia and Georgian people; a toast to parents; a toast to siblings; a toast to children; a toast to ancestors; and a final toast to the tamada himself. There also may be toasts to God, to spouses, to love, or to other things; the more formal the supra, the more toasts there are likely to be. There is also a strong likelihood, due to your attendance, that there will be toasts to America, and to its friendship with Georgia. Once the tamada has made the first toast, everyone around the room gives their version of the same toast. It is considered rude to skip a toast; make sure that, if everyone is toasting and also keeping an eye on you, that you raise your glass in turn to say something. Especially at first, you will not be expected to say much more than, “gaumarjos,” but toasts are a good place to practice your Georgian. Everyone is drinking, so they won’t care if you mess up, and they will be riotously pleased with your effort.

When you finish talking is where it gets hairy. It is tradition that your wine glass, after each toast, must be consumed bolomde – to the end. I’ll let you count the number of possible toasts I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I’ll also say that it’s probably not a real supra unless there are at least seven to ten. Now I’ll let you imagine yourself after ten glasses of wine. There are ways – sneaky and not – out of drinking bolomde, but the fact remains that you will end up drinking a lot of alcohol at a supra if you either do not set ground rules for yourself, or drink enough that you forget them. Wine consumption, on even the personal level, is not even usually measured in glasses – it is measured in liters. As in: “He didn’t drink that much last night. Only a liter and a half.” Thus, rules number one through, well, eleven, of Safe Supra-ing: always know, before beginning a supra, how much wine or liquor you are willing to drink. If you do not want to drink at all, say so at the very beginning, and don’t budge. You will be begged. Begged. “Just one.” “Why not?” “It’s ok, my family made this wine. It is very delicious.” If you relent, and drink one, “just one” will turn into “just eight.” I was at a small supra a few weeks ago where four straight toasts were promised to be “the last one.” And this was with vodka, not wine (an important note: homemade Georgian wine, while it varies in strength, is usually relatively weak, despite its fun vinegar taste. Homemade Georgian vodka also varies in strength: from fire-down-below to pure jet fuel. Be advised, and be careful). If you’re not drinking, don’t drink. People will eventually take you seriously. If you don’t want to drink very much, start drinking less than bolomde from the very first toast; you will, again, be exhorted to finish your glass, but if you refuse for long enough, you will be left alone. A good excuse is, “I’m an American, I can’t drink as much as you Georgians can.” They will take this as an immense compliment.

This is a good point to mention the gender difference at supras. As a male volunteer, I have not had much opportunity to witness how American females are treated at supras, but from what I have heard from other volunteers, it is relatively easier to beg out of drinking heavily. Also, there are apparently all-female supras, where there are no men who must be tended to, which are evidently loads of fun. I wouldn’t know. But I do know that, if you are a man, you will either drink a lot, or say, “No” a lot. Georgian men drink, and they drink a lot. They will want you to drink a lot with them. They will want you to drink a lot the morning after you drank a lot, because this is the best way to cure hangovers. They will want you to drink a lot when the electricity goes out, because this is the best way to pass the time when you don’t have electricity. They will want you to drink a lot at 11 o’clock in the morning in the office of the school principal, because this is the best activity to engage in while in the presence of children. It is a fact of life in this land, and it is one you will get very used to very quickly.

Your endurance will be tested at supras in ways even beyond your tolerance for alcohol. Full-blown supras usually have vast arrays of food; every traditional Georgian dish will be present, and there will be a lot of it. On the table, plates will be stacked on top of plates that are already stacked on top of plates. You may never have seen as much food in one place as you are likely to see at big supras (weddings, for instance). Partly because your Georgian hosts will be wanting you to drink an unfathomable amount, they will want you to also eat an unfathomable amount. You will hear a lot of, “Tchame, tchame” (“eat, eat,” if you haven’t yet encountered this most ubiquitous of phrases in other parts of this handbook). Pacing yourself is an important part of the supra experience. Do not succumb to the temptation to eat all of the delicious-looking things that you see immediately, even if you do not get these foods at normal meals. You will immediately feel tired and finished, and you will have many hours yet to go. Georgian supras can be prodigious in length. A normal supra will probably last a few hours, a supra for a special occasion can last much longer. I have heard stories about volunteers who have left supras, gone to sleep, and woken up the next day to discover the supra still in progress. Besides knowing your limits in terms of alcohol, and how to stick to them, knowing your exit strategy is the most important thing you should think about during supras. There are lots of strategies. Try to sit near an exit, and to not get blocked in by other guests. Sit with people who will be sympathetic if you wish to leave – friends and coworkers, perhaps – rather than with over-enthusiastic hosts. Text a friend, and tell him or her to call you; then, when the phone rings, pretend that your mother is calling, which is an acceptable excuse to get out of anything. You can even just wait for everyone to get so drunk that they won’t notice or care if you slip out the door. This sounds like a joke to you right now. It will not six months from now, when it’s 1:30am, nobody is showing any signs of stopping, and you have to wake up to teach class or go to work in the morning.

It occurs to me that I have probably either excited you immeasurably or terrified you beyond words. But, whether you’re texting your friends to tell them, “dude, peace corps is gonna be awesome, wait til you hear how much they drink there” or having terrible visions of a bottle of Merlot chasing you down a dark tunnel screaming, “tchame, tchame” (of course, I am kidding – homemade wine, which is what you will always be drinking, is to Merlot what a go-kart is to a Mercedes), realize that the volunteer experience is highly variable. Some volunteers rarely have supras. Some supra multiple times per week. It depends on your host family, where you live, and your willingness to take part. As long as you stay in control, you will be totally fine. Gaumarjos!


Dad said...

Hi Dan - you said you wanted comments on your blog. I sent you an email last week and hadn't heard from you, just sent a followup seconds ago. Please check your emails. That being said, hi! Just saw your movie, funny, amazing, loved it, cool (especially the black and white cars).....As I read your blog I feel a strong urge to participate in a supra. Maybe this fall. It's interesting to look at the Visitor Locations on your blog clustrMap. Hawaii and Alaska even. You have an audience (it is entertaining). Talk to you soon. Love you (and your blog). Dad
PS Mom said to tell you she loved your movie.

ruth said...

I was talking to someone about Be Kind, Rewind -- I think it was a teacher I work with -- and he was saying he really wanted to see it, and I said my friend had worked on it and there might be some pictures of his in it, and he was very impressed. The end.