One of the traditions Georgians are most proud of is their tradition of hospitality. I have been the beneficiary of this hospitality on countless occasions over the last four years, many of which I have not had the opportunity to write about. One stands out particularly in my mind for being the time when I had one of my epiphanies about Georgian Hospitality, and it is very sad to find it in my collection of unpublished drafts – I could have sworn I had told this story on my blog, and it turns out I had not. It illustrates one of the two important differences I have noticed between Georgian and American hospitality.
So, here is the text of a draft I wrote almost exactly three years ago – specifically, June 26th, 2011:
I have now been living in Georgia for just about ten months. During the course of these months, things here have begun to seem ordinary or everyday to me. The really good things about Georgia become expectations that I take for granted; the really bad things become frustrations that I assume that I will have to deal with indefinitely. Nothing is new anymore.
That is, of course, until a day like today.
So I’ve been thinking about Georgian hospitality. Because I have become very used to Georgian hospitality, it is very easy for the stand-out aspects of Georgian hospitality to sort of fade into the background. Recently I found myself thinking, “is Georgian hospitality meaningfully different from other cultures’ hospitality?”
And in some respects, it’s not. When I was growing up, there was a whole separate set of rules to be followed around “company.” The guests got the place of honor at the table, they got to use whatever things we had at our disposal, they got priority in every decision, and they got the “good china” – in other words, when I grew up in America, many families had a set of dishes and utensils for daily use, and another, separate set that only came out when you had “company.”
So I’m well aware of the idea of guests being treated like visiting dignitaries and the hosts receiving no compensation. Georgia operates just like my childhood guest treatment lessons predict – the guests get to sit in the best seat, eat the choicest cuts of meat, decide what to watch on TV, etc.
But Georgian hospitality does stand out – in one very significant respect – from American hospitality. Georgian hospitality is extended, pretty much invariably, to strangers.
Tonight I was on my way home from Buckswood School. I got to the bus stop in Tskneti and there was no bus there. I heard some Georgian men talking in a small cabin near the bus stop.
Now, if I were in the mountains in America somewhere, various concerns would cross my mind very seriously. I might worry that some Deliverance-style events might occur. I might be concerned that the people in the cabin wanted privacy and would be inclined to shoot trespassers. I might just be worried that the people would be untrusting and unfriendly. I might be worried that I had stumbled upon a hideout for criminals.
But I’m not in the mountains in America, so I didn’t worry about crime or hostility. Instead, I thought, “if I ask these guys when the next bus to Tbilisi is, I bet I’ll get not only information about the bus, but also something to drink while I’m at it.”
Because the truth is, one of the main differences between Georgia and America – one of the differences that I have not fixated on as of yet in this blog – is that in America, people are sometimes incredibly friendly and generous, and sometimes very rude and standoffish; but in Georgia, people are almost always incredibly friendly and generous.
And that’s it. I didn’t write the end of the story, didn’t publish it in any version, apparently.
So the rest of the story goes like this: I went up to the little cabin to ask about bus departure times. They did indeed tell me when the bus would come – about 20 minutes – and they did indeed sit me down for some chacha. They also had some leftover khinkali from the day (turns out the cabin was the kitchen of a restaurant which turned out to be the best restaurant I have ever eaten at in Georgia) which they fried up and fed me. We talked about my job and my country and basic things that I could speak of in my limited Georgian. Then the bus came, I thanked them, and I went on my way, promising to return to eat at their restaurant when it was actually open during the day. I did, and, as I said, the food was sublimely good. I took friends there who agreed – one friend said it was the best pork he’d ever had anywhere.
A sad epilogue is that I went back to that same restaurant a few weeks ago, and found out that their chef had died. Indeed, the food was not as good anymore: a true culinary talent had passed from this world, and I just feel lucky to have had a chance to partake of his fare several times during my first summer in Georgia.
What I took from this story has stayed with me: you can count on Georgians to welcome strangers in a way that you can’t count on Americans.
In the three years since, another difference between Georgian and American hospitality has made itself known to me. My parents – especially my father – taught me that my job as host was not only to give the guest the best of what we had, but to make the guest feel “at home”. There is an ongoing relationship between guest and host, and as that relationship matures, the guest should be made to feel increasingly comfortable in the home of the host. This can be seen as a shift from formality to informality, but that’s an abstract way of looking at it.
A more concrete way might be to consider getting a beverage from the refrigerator. If I were a first-time guest in someone’s house, I would probably not just go to their fridge, look inside, and help myself to whatever drink caught my eye. I would consider that presumptuous and rude. However, at some point later in the guest-host relationship, I would do just that. I have many friends and family members who I am familiar enough with to feel comfortable raiding their fridge when I am a guest, and the only limiting point of protocol would be that I would ask before taking the last of something.
One problem with the model of the host offering a beverage and the guest accepting is that the guest will find it harder to get a beverage when they want one – instead, they will often end up with an unwanted beverage accepted out of politeness, and they will sometimes want a beverage in a case where the host has neglected to offer one. This is not just about beverages – it’s about the entire ritualized procedure of a guest-host relationship, up to and including meals and activities and the supra.
In some ways, you can view the guest-host relationship in my corner of American culture as a shared journey in which the beginning consists of the host offering the guest a beverage, getting it from the fridge, pouring it, and serving the guest – and the end consists of the guest going into the fridge and getting what they want (and knowing that this is okay as well as where the cups are). As the relationship becomes more familiar, it becomes more comfortable and the strictures of formality give way to the efficiency of just getting your own beverage.
From what I have seen of Georgian hospitality, that process is either slower or nonexistent. With the exception of my two Westernized Georgian friends, there has been no movement among my friends or family members along the path of the guest-host relationship that suggests that one day I might feel comfortable raiding their fridge. Georgian hospitality, to me, seems stuck in that formal modality, where the host is forever serving a beverage to the guest and the guest is never really made to feel “at home”.
I have to note, I’m not criticizing this – I don’t mind being served at others’ homes, or stepping into the role of servant in my own – I’m just pointing out that it’s an important but subtle difference that explains some of the experiences I’ve had as a guest in Georgian homes.
And of course I’d be remiss if I did not point out that in a host family, the situation is somewhat different because there’s a different journey – the journey from stranger to family member – and so the guest-host relationship eventually gives way to the family relationship, and the volunteer is treated much like another son or daughter.
Still, I often feel less comfortable – more honored, but still less comfortable – as the subject of Georgian hospitality than I do when I am enjoying Western hospitality. At first I chalked this up to unfamiliarity or language barrier, but after several years and many conversations with other foreigners about this feeling, I feel comfortable making the generalization that Georgian hospitality seems to have a tendency to be somewhat more formal and formalized – and also somewhat more ritualized and restricted – than Western hospitality, and to persist in this formality, often indefinitely.
I get the sense that Georgians themselves feel much more comfortable with following the procedures and norms of the formalized guest-host relationship, and possibly don’t notice that it can make us feel less comfortable, or can seem less friendly, especially when the situation persists after repeated meetings.
Of course, hospitality is a system, and perhaps the two stray observations I have made here can be related. It makes sense, in a society in which hospitality is often extended to strangers, to have the relationship governed by a relatively strict set of procedures and norms. It makes sense for interactions that are often for strangers to have formal and ritualized components.
For Americans, for whom hospitality is almost exclusively directed towards friends and family, it makes sense that the formality is just a formality – something to be dispensed with as soon as the proper motions can be gone through to establish a shared basis of interaction, a basic set of ground rules.
(It’s worth noting that this is similar to David Graeber’s insight that when you want something from a friend or relative, you tend to use an informal and non-numerical system of favors, and when you want something from a stranger, you tend to use a formal, impersonal, numerical system of money.)
I wouldn’t bet on the explanatory or causal power of this guess, but certainly it seems that the two differences I’ve noted in this post are complementary, in a sense.
I am tempted to relate these insights to a sociopolitical notion of hospitality and to how Americans, Europeans, and Georgians respond to foreigners – but this post has already run long, so perhaps I will leave that as an exercise for the reader (or commenter).