Supra

Last night some of my students took me to a little place on the northern outskirts of Tbilisi for an outdoor barbecue supra. Let me start by saying I had an amazing time and everything was pretty much perfect.

The people who planned the trip were the same who took me out on that other night, so I promised myself I’d be careful and pace myself. Unfortunately, that concept doesn’t carry a lot of currency with this group, especially given that I’ve already demonstrated a capacity for ridiculous amounts of chacha. Fortunately, however, there was to be no chacha on this occasion – we would drink only wine. “Do you like wine?” they asked. “Of course – I like anything with alcohol in it.” Not entirely true – I’m not hugely a fan of mojitos, for instance – but true enough.

They picked me up at home, the location of which they knew because they had dropped me off last time. I find this pretty amazing – it’s sometimes hard for me to remember where something is after only being there once, especially when all the roads look the same and there are no street signs – but I imagine that growing up in a place that plays it fast and loose with maps and directions makes a person better at navigating by landmarks and memory. We drove for, I don’t know, about ten or fifteen minutes, before coming to a little hole in the woods with some kind of wooden pavilion and what looked like a barbecue cooking station. In front of us was a tiny creek with two wooden bridges across it – spaced at about car width apart, one for each tire – that looked like a disaster waiting to happen. Upon further inspection, I realized that they probably could hold up a car, and even if they didn’t, the “river” was about six inches deep and I could literally jump across it (and did, twice, in the dark, just to prove I could).

On the pavilion was a wooden table with simple benches for seating. While I inspected this, the rest of the group had scattered without much discussion and began doing work. I tried to help – I carried some things, set the table – but I didn’t really know what to do and so I mostly ended up holding the flashlight for people who had actually seemed perfectly happy to work in the dark. My friends prepared meat, bread, and vegetables, working quickly and competently as a team. It was pretty amazing – usually I only see that level of teamwork among people who have worked together a number of times before.

We spent a lot of time hanging out and getting the cooking done, and when the food was ready we sat down for the supra. So here’s where the anecdote ends and the information begins.

So far, I have been to several “supras” – like, at least ten. Every one has been slightly different. You may have heard already that a supra is basically a Georgian meal for some kind of special occasion – anything from a holiday, to the presence of a guest, to a gathering of friends – that is accompanied by a number of toasts and led by a “tamada” who is in charge of the toasts.

After that, however, there is significant variation. It seems like wine is the most typical or traditional drink for toasts, but liquor – chacha, vodka, or otherwise – can also be used. The guidebooks will tell you that toasting with beer is bad because you should only toast your enemies with beer – however, one Georgian told me that this was a tradition from Soviet times and that he did not follow it, and the guidebooks haven’t had a great track record so far, so I’m not really sure where most Georgians stand on the beer issue.

There also appear to be differing levels of formality. Some friends out at a restaurant might choose to have the meal as a “supra” – they’ll just informally toast each other, maybe there’s a tamada but people more just take turns, and the goal seems to be to let loose and have fun. There’s also a home supra with just close friends and family, in which people will be less bound to the table, since some people have to prepare and serve food, and some may look after kids who are running around, and various other things might be going on.

Last night was pretty much the most formal one I’ve been to. I got to learn some of the finer points of Georgian supra etiquette, which I will now share with you.

First, the guidebooks and the TLG training suggested that it is not necessary to drink at every toast – instead, you can just touch your drink to your lips, if you have to drive, or are sick. This is true – however, if you don’t have a reason not to drink, some people might look at you funny if you aren’t drinking enough. I started out slow last night – drinking a quarter to a third of my glass of wine with each toast – and the tamada basically told me I wasn’t drinking enough. He said that since it was cold, I needed to drink more to stay strong and healthy. I suspect that may have been a polite way of urging me to keep up with the group. Now, I’ve been pressured to keep up in the US tons of times, and Georgians are much more gentle about it, but I just felt more obliged because I worry about making social errors here.

Second, I learned that there are some interesting variations on the basic toast. For instance, there’s one toast – I think it might have been the toast to women, although I’m not sure if it varies or not – that is carried out with a bowl. Apparently in Georgia it was traditional to drink wine out of a bowl, rather than a glass – glasses are a more modern vessel. In any case, each of the men had to stand up, say a toast to women, and drink the entire bowl of wine. Mine was… let’s just say the women seemed to like it and the men seemed oddly quiet, and leave it at that. The second interesting toast was when the tamada created this random cup by cutting a lemonade bottle in half, and instructed us to fill it and make a toast (to Georgia, I believe) and drink it. He said something about needed a different kind of drinking vessel for a different kind of toast, but I may not have understood this properly because I’m not sure how the toast was different, but anyway, it was certainly novel and interesting. My toast to Georgia got instant applause from the table (I complimented Georgian hospitality, Georgian landscape, and Georgian women, among other things) and the improvised cup held more wine than I expected.

Third, I was told that it is impolite to drink without first saying something nice about what the tamada is toasting to. I’d never heard this before – in previous supras, “gaumarjost” or even just “jost” had been enough – but I went with it. This ended up taking quite a bit of time, since every toast the tamada made was then elaborated upon by all of the men present, but it was nice to get the hang of toasting. I was told that toasts have to be spoken at a decent volume, to capture the attention of all of the people at the supra. I was also told that after living in Georgia for two months, I would have to say the toasts in Georgian. I’m hoping that was a joke, because my Georgian just isn’t there yet and it ain’t gonna get there in the next two days.

Fourth – did you know supras could contain poetry and song? I didn’t. After some of the toasts, the tamada recited a poem. After others, three of the men at the end of the table sang a Georgian folk song. These songs are polyphonic and quite interesting, musically – usually there are two men in high parts singing the same words in a slightly different key or tone, plus one man just holding a single lower note beneath the melody. Towards the end of the night, I started to pick up on this lower tone part and got in on some of the polyphonic action. Later, I started harmonizing up from the low note, adding a fourth part to the songs… I’m not sure how sacrilegious this was, but a few people seemed to really like it, and I was told I have a good ear for music. I do have a tendency to improvise harmonies to songs that merit it – my Good Riddance harmony vocal is particularly noteworthy, and almost anything by Jack Johnson…

Anyway, I also contributed some poetry and song to the event. When we toasted to the lands where our family names come from, I sang the first stanza of Zdravljica, which is a poem from Slovenia that happens to be a toast that happens to have been written in the shape of a wine glass. It was put to music about a hundred years ago, and the seventh stanza is the Slovene national anthem. In any case, appropriate on many levels, and I got a round of applause. Later, I sang an American contemporary folk song called “Iowa.” I have the crazy idea that I could do a polyphonic, Georgian-style arrangement of the song if I found some Georgian men willing to try it out, and indeed the people gathered seemed to like the song.

Fifth, it is apparently unacceptable to leave a supra early. Two of the guests left sometime around midnight – I gather that one had a son waiting for her at home, and the other went with her because they lived in the same area in central Tbilisi. The tamada explained after they left that normally this would never happen, that leaving early is unacceptable, and that although we could make an exception because of the circumstances, nevertheless I should judge the two who left accordingly. I don’t know – I guess I can sympathize with the desire not to be out in a cold forest singing and drinking until one in the morning, but on the other hand, sometimes when one or two guests leave early, it reminds everyone else of the time and the outside world and basically breaks the mood a little bit, but on the mythical third hand, that’s why we have wine and song – to set the mood – and we did recover quickly.

Last but not least, there’s the Vakhtanguli. This is tradition where two people face each other and drink with their drinking arms interlocked. Then, they give each other three kisses on the cheeks. It’s fun, but doesn’t happen at every supra. It didn’t happen last night, although one of the guests kept bringing it up since we had so much fun with it last time, to which the tamada kept saying that it wasn’t the time. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Anyway, I still have questions. For instance, I wonder what made this supra so much more elaborate than the previous ones – in other words, why did we have the song and poetry and everyone having to repeat or elaborate each toast on this occasion, whereas in the past we didn’t do these things. I’ve already compared supras to seders, so I guess what I’m asking is what made last night different from every other night?

My preliminary answer involves something someone said to me once about supras – according to this person, supras are supposed to be relatively special occasions. They were supposed to happen once in a while, so people would appreciate them. Now, however, people will take any excuse for a supra and the tradition is being diluted. Perhaps before last night I was only taking part in these diluted supras. Perhaps I was hanging with some more traditional people. Perhaps it had to do with being out in the woods as opposed to in a restaurant. Questions, questions.

I will say this – the super-elaborate, more formal, longer, songier supra was exponentially more fun and interesting than the other “supras” I’ve been to. I think the tradition and the ritual aspects really appeal to me – not to mention the chance to improve my Georgian and listen to those Georgian folk songs.

In the meantime:

Zdravljica, 80’s rock version…

And Iowa:

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19 Responses to Supra

  1. pasumonok says:

    I will try to answer and than my husband (Giga) can add some of his thoughts.
    O.K. so here is where you’re missing out by being in Tbilisi. We became too lazy and to hold traditional supras. Plus, the progressive, liberal youth thinks that supras are boring. older generation tries to romanticize it and makes it too strict to enjoy. so, depends where you fall on this continuum.
    This is the way supra should be held:
    1. Tamada is basically a mini-king. He holds all the power and he stirs the supra. You can talk only when he grants you the right to do so. I mean you can chit chat with your neighbors, but you can’t address the whole table or come up with your own toast. He will order you (sometimes even rudely) to stop talking whenever he is talking. In more traditional setting, people even stop eating when tamada gives a speech.
    2. there are traditional number of toasts that tamada needs to say in a particular order. i’ll let Giga list them, i don’t remember.
    3.a toast to a woman is very important one. usually men drink it standing up. traditionally, georgian men were very chivalrous and followed the medieval knights kinda rules of conduct. as an example: if two men are fighting and a woman walks up to them and puts her handkerchief in the middle–they have to stop, just to honor her and follow her command. that we left in the past. some men still do treat georgian women that way though. another example: just until recently, it was considered very rude if a man offended woman’s ears by swearing in her presence. if he did so, other men would fight with him.
    4. the most “special” toasts require a special vessel–it has to be different from what one uses for the “ordinary” toasts.
    5. when tamada says a toast everyone is supposed to toast to the same thing, adding their own thoughts to the said toast.
    6. traditionally, supras would last for over 6 hours. they would always include singing, dancing and poetry. that way people would find ways to have fun and let alcohol take over and to be creative. nowadays, young boys get drunk ( they drink too fast) and fight.
    I hope this helps.

  2. pasumonok says:

    oh, and the beer: the head of our church blessed the beer several years ago, thus making it o.k. to toast with it. before that, people used to “anti-toast: with beer. it was actually very creative. some of the “anti-toast: examples:
    let’s toast to people who are dishonest friends ( meaning F*** them)
    let’s toast to our boss
    let’s to toast Shevaradznadze ( our ex-president)
    let’s toast to a man who marries his best friend’s sister
    the regular toasts very often go by default–people say what they’ve heard 1000 times. but with the anti-toasts, one had to think and come up with something funny.

  3. pasumonok says:

    sorry , i meant “anti-toast” , not “anti-toast:

  4. Eric says:

    You got it pretty spot on.
    Here’s what I’ve used to drink so far:
    I had to drink from a terracotta wine horn for my host father’s supra.
    and then on the last holiday we drink first from normal glass cups, then a wine glass then the other guests used a glass normally for cola/root beer floats (that one I skipped).

    Sometimes I find that even Georgians think long supras are a social hassle (judging from facial expressions).

  5. blintu says:

    traditional ways of supra are changed and it shows especially in Tbilisi. if u haven’t seen supra with Georgian traditional dance then u got much left to see

  6. ---> says:

    > Towards the end of the night, I started to pick up on this lower tone part
    > Later, I started harmonizing up from the low note

    See language barriers go easily once you consume enough alcohol. 😉

    As far as about supras your observations and readers’ comments are correct and informative. To experience traditional supra it is best outside of Tbilisi in non-touristy areas.

    List of toast and toast order is quite important. The difference between west and east Georgia that in west they start every supra toasting to peace (which is sad reflection of the reality). Then comes in following order:

    1. Toast to the occasion – why people have gathered – birthday, wedding, funeral, national holiday, etc.
    2. Toast to parents
    3. Toast to siblings – brothers and sisters
    4. Toast to deceased in the family.
    5. Toast to women
    6. Toast to Georgia or ‘toast to our countries’ if foreigners are present in supra alongside with georgians.

    So if I remember correctly above list is mandatory toast and after that free program starts.

    As far as about different kind of drinking vessel and clay roof shingle – yes it does happen. One is lucky that they did not have drink from a barrel of a shotgun (don’t ask me how it can be done – no idea).

  7. Pingback: Georgian Cuisine | Synergy-Press

  8. I am Georgian and I’d rather commit a suicide than attend a sufra. When there are weddings and this kind of family holidays I alway say I have temperature or something.. I especially hate contemporary sufra , it’s what’s left out of the tradition nowadays.
    It’s like drinking until people get sick, then get sick and start drinking again until you’re sick again.
    Ew.

    P.S. And the toast about international friendships, bridges in between Georgia and US and chains which lock our hearts together and newly built relationship which are going to last forever? 😀 IT IS BLEEDING MY EARS 😀

  9. blintu says:

    girwithparanoia

    how can u say that? i hate u. HATE U! HATE!
    ok i don’t hate you but you’re wrong. there’s always different kinds of supra and you haven’t been on good ones. actually i can’t really say if there’s any good one in Tbilisi or not but anyway…
    sorry for freaky comment. i was watching Invader Zim right now
    aah nevermind

    • No problem :)))) everybody hates me(rofl)
      Well, actually i have attended a sufra in Imereti, Guria, Achara, Racha, Lechxumi, almost Svaneti, and in Qartli as well..
      I have spent looooooong hours on sufras translating for foreigner gusts who have just arrived at 2 AM and really want to go to their hotel rooms and sleep but nobody lets them go.. painful experiences 😀
      If you really like sufras get a redheaded wig and you can go on every single sufra i was invited to and pretend you are me 😛 😀
      see, I’m so kind 😀

      • blintu says:

        LIAAARRR! LIARR! YOU LIIIE! (in Zim’s voice)
        btw i mentioned that i didn’t hate u and that was… amm part of the show 😀
        u can’t treat supra as good or bad. of course it has both of them and most of it is subjective. if u really have attended in all places you mentioned, i can only envy you.
        it’s of course uneasy but finally everyone should understand that you can’t tie someone if he/she wishes to leave. some try to make new generations follow their old traditions by force and that’s wrong. but i really like when i hear interesting stories and see them dancing or singing (that’s not the one u see on stage) and i’m part of it. so sad i can’t dance.
        now talking about restaurants. i can’t say that supra can be held in there.
        1. there abnormal loud voice of annoying (for me) music. there are few supras together and like different groupings. there’s always at least one drunk man…
        2. the tradition of having supras in restaurants came from last centuries by wastrel people who didn’t care about much. actually we got the tradition of having sufra almost everyday by that time and there came the tradition of fighting/ drinking too much.
        3. i haven’t thought about that yet, but i’m sure that it exists.
        there’s one moment about the supra. time changed and now time is more priced for us. we don’t “waste” our time much and count every second. so traditional way of saying toasts does not fit with our supras now. my grandfather used to say that “the time spent on supra doesn’t count”. i can’t really agree with that but he meant you shouldn’t think about time when you’re on supra.
        if we shorten the toasts and fit it with our situation there’ll be no problem with getting bored. the other reason of getting bored is less creativity and activity on supra. today only few people say lyrics on supra or good stories.

  10. pasumonok says:

    She can hate supras, come on.
    I went thru that fase: I hate everything Georgian and Georgians are boring. I feel a lot happier now that I accept my background, cause like it or not, you can’t get away from it.
    However, I am picky with the supras. I finally realized that the setting, food and alcohol does matter, but what makes the supra is people who are sitting around it (sounds like such a banality!) If tamada and his guests prefer memorized, by default toasts that we’ve all heard 5,000 times, it gets boring. especially cause they sound fake. most of the weddings are like that. but, if the group of people are interesting and every toast sparks a conversations, than I can endure 5 hours of sitting and talking. Especially, if those people know how to sing or dance (which everybody in Georgia except me can).

  11. Giga says:

    Let me add some details to my wife’s (Pasumionok) Story of the supra.

    First of all the main premise of Supra is communication, people get together over wine and other drinks, honor the traditional toasts and get really creative (mostly from being already drunk  ) on the additional toasts. There are discussions in between the toasts, often on the subjects on toasts which can get very interesting. This is why the Supra is more relaxed and often more enjoyable with a smaller amount of people, and usually the ones you know.
    So about the core Supra traditions: Most of Supra traditions as we know them today date back only couple of hundred years. The Supra itself dates much earlier, the peak was probably around the 12th century, when noblemen gathered around a table of food and wine, spoke of different things and competed in “Shairoba” a kind of freestyle improvised poetry which had to be pretty but witty, this could go for hours and often continue to singing, hence the poetic and singing part of modern Supra.
    In modern Supra you have Tamada who as my wife said is the sole ruler of the table, he announces the toast and controls the behavior on the Supra. After Tamada says the toast everybody should contribute and elaborate on the toast proposed by Tamada. Tamada has right to grant the power of toasting for one toast to some other member of Supra upon request. He also has the power of “Alaverdi”, to grant someone the right to be the first who speaks after Tamada on this particular toast, usually someone related to the subject of the toast. On big Supras Tamada appoints a vice-Tamada who must watch over the part of the Supra the Tamada cannot reach, these often happens for instance at weddings where you have numerous Supra table.
    Tamada has the right to decide which toast is more special and demand a special glass for that which is name “Ganskhvavebuli” (literally: special, different). These glass at least should look “cooler”, more beautiful than usual glass, on most cases it is much bigger. Traditionally it is a horn from some large animal but it can be anything, I have drunk from a flower vase on numerous occasions 
    For the choice of drinks: the wine is traditional and this is what you will drink in rural areas, the wine there is usually is made in the house you are drinking it at or comes from a trusted source. In Urban areas the wine that is for sale is usually not good, made with sugar or addition of pure alcohol if not worse things, which results in bad drunkenness and severe headache in the morning. Good wine is hard to find and usually is expensive so the choice naturally switches to vodka, as good quality vodka from Russia and Ukraine is widely available and is reasonably priced. Another reason why many switch to vodka is that wine has a lot surprises to it: drinking different win every time makes you wonder where will you be in 10 glasses, with vodka you always know beforehand how you will be feeling after 10 shots 
    For the toasts: the tradition varies from region to region and often from Tamada top Tamada but top ten usually include:
    1. To God
    2. To peace
    3. To the occasions of the Supra if there is any
    4. To hosts/parents of the host
    5. Brothers/sisters of the host
    6. Depends on the occasion and marital status of the host, central figure of Supra it may be followed by spouse toast, to grandparents, cousins and so on
    7. To the deceased
    8. To life (always is said after the previous one, usually with very short interval)
    9. To Georgia
    After that Tamada elaborates, but the last toast is usually either to “dashla-armoshla” which can be briefly translated as: “We currently are going different ways but we still remain friends and will meet on many occasions in the nearest future”, or the other variation is the toast to all our holy places at which we come to pray.
    This course of toasts can be altered significantly if it is a special Supra, wedding or a funeral for example.
    Well probably that is all for the brief history, I would like to note though that this is the canonical way whoch you will not meet much in Tbilisi. Here when several friends get together they drink in a more relaxed way, keeping some of the traditional toasts but putting more accent on communication, which often leads to a lack of Tamada and more creative toasts from each member of Supra.

    Feel free to ask me if any questions arise and to any Georgians reading it please feel free to contribute more or correct me.

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