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…