A Little Bit about Svaneti

A Little Bit about Svaneti

In this post, I’d like to describe one of my favourite areas in Georgia, which is also the place where we’ve spent the most time next to Tbilisi.

IMG_2451

Svaneti is a part of northwestern Georgia located high up in the Caucasus mountains. The region is marked by dramatic peaks that include some of the highest in Georgia, deep gorges, powerful rivers fed by melting glaciers, and thick forests.

DSC_4687

Its natural beauty and unique culture (plus the new downhill skiing resorts) have made it one of the most celebrated sites for tourism in Georgia, though this only started to develop barely over a decade ago.

DSC_5931

Svaneti is home to an ethnic group of people known as “Svans,” who are a kind of sub-group of Georgians—they regard themselves, and are regarded by other Georgians, as fully Georgian, but also possess a definite identity of their own, despite numbering only about 35,000 (with at least 10,000 of them now living outside of the region).

DSC_6057

Actually, their oral language is totally distinct from Georgian (sharing a historical root but splitting off from the common ancestor about 4,000 years ago), and the two languages are not mutually intelligible, although all Svans today also speak Georgian since it is the primary language of instruction in schools. As far as scholars know, Svans have lived in this land for well over 2000 years, and there are no records of earlier inhabitants.

IMG_2760

DSC_5109

Georgians view the Svans as somewhat strange rural people who have held on to the archaic customs of the ancient Georgians better than lowlanders—the area is often described as “medieval” in popular journalism and travel writing.

IMG_2161

Svaneti’s mountainous geography kept it relatively isolated over the centuries; while lowland Georgia experienced multiple waves of invaders, the lowlanders sometimes sent their treasure to Svaneti for safeguarding.

DSC_6073

Although outsiders were seldom able to bring war to Svaneti, the Svans themselves were infamously vindictive, practicing the custom of vendetta/”blood feud.” As a result, hundreds of stone defense towers exist throughout the highest part of Svaneti, primarily built to guard against nearby enemy clans.

DSC_5376

Some of these structures are 800 years old, and many churches in the area are of similar or even older age. Today the towers aren’t really used for anything, though I’ve met at least one family who keeps their cows in the lowest storey!

DSC_5358

DSC_5242

Svan religious customs are very interesting to the anthropologically-inclined, being a blend of the Orthodox Christianity brought up from lowland Georgia well over a thousand years ago, but imperfectly preserved in the absence of regular contact with the ecclesiastical centre, and the animist beliefs that preceded it.

DSC_5029

While pagan traces exist in many Christian festivals, especially in folk customs in Orthodox and Catholic countries, they are even more obvious here.

IMG_2770

Svaneti’s relative isolation meant that its folklore has been better preserved up to the present day than that of other parts of the country.

DSC_5281

DSC_5300

Its folk music has a distinctive character, with strikingly dissonant parallel chords and two instruments that appear only here—the bowed “chuniri” and the “changi” harp.

DSC_4705

IMG_2603

Svans say that some of their songs are 4,000 years old, and many of these older songs, which are still sung during local religious festivals, include words that nobody today understands.

DSC_6039

We’ve been lucky enough to visit Svaneti four or five times now (Matt went once on his own in 2012), including a whole month last summer and then a longer stint from December 2015 to March.

IMG_1800

DSC_5428

IMG_1961

More Svaneti pictures and stories to come!

Advertisements
Summer, part I

Summer, part I

DSC_0528

Yes, it’s been four months since the last post, and this blog is at risk of getting abandoned if I don’t put something up soon. So here we go; some highlights of our summer travels–no pictures of Georgia today, actually. First of all, we headed back to Canada for a month to visit home. On the way from Tbilisi to Winnipeg via Toronto, we had an 8-hour layover in Italy, so we got to go into Rome and hurriedly rush past a few of the major sights, like the Colosseum up there.

DSC_0547

Except whoops, at Rome’s airport they told us last minute that somehow the middle leg of our trip had been unceremoniously cancelled. This left us with 2/3rds of a ticket, from Tbilisi to Rome, and from Toronto to Winnipeg, but with no connecting flight in between. While we weren’t very satisfied with this news, fortunately a kindly Alitalia agent eventually rebooked us for the following day (after the airplane we should have been on was already gone). We had to pay for our accommodation (since nobody would take responsibility for the error), but it just meant that we traded one night in Winnipeg for a night in seaside Italy. And got to taste the local pizza, of course. But yeah, don’t ever book with FlightHub.

DSC_0772

DSC_0622

After our unexpected 32 hour stopover in Italy, we made it to Winnipeg. Since about 60% of this blog’s readers live there, you’re probably not terribly interested in looking at pictures of the place. But if somebody feels otherwise, I can certainly add some images of home.

Next stop after a month in Canada: Kazakhstan. First destination was Almaty, the largest city and the former capital (yes, there’s a story behind that “former”).

DSC_1985

Unlike Georgia, Kazakhstan’s relationship with both Russia and its own Soviet history is much less troubled. So it’s not uncommon to find enormous Soviet-style monuments all over the place, with Russian inscriptions firmly intact, like the above memorial to the Great Patriotic War (a.k.a. WWII).

DSC_1967

Of course, there are copious monuments to nationalist heroes as well, like Shabyt, the national bard.

DSC_2023

After living in Georgia, huge bazaar-type open markets were nothing new, but horsemeat sellers certainly were.

DSC_2555

Speaking of novel cuisine, this kymyz certainly qualifies. It’s fermented mare’s milk, and it tastes about as…interesting as you’d expect.

DSC_2000

Although Kazakhstan is a firmly “Asian” (or Eurasian) country, its Russian population is still sizable, probably about 20% (and Russians were actually the majority until after the fall of the USSR). Russian is still spoken almost universally in Almaty, although the majority language is Kazakh, part of the Turkic family.

DSC_2067

Luckily for us, the National Museum of Musical Instruments was quite interesting and well-designed. Rosa didn’t quite make it through the whole visit, though.

DSC_2156

We took a trip to Charyn Canyon, a few hours’ drive from Almaty, for a look at some impressive scenery. It’s only about 100 miles from the border with China.

DSC_2290

After Almaty, we took an overnight train up to Astana, Kazakhstan’s new capital. Apparently the president, Nazarbayev, decided about 20 years ago (yeah, he was president then and still is today…) that Almaty was in too much danger of a potential earthquake and decided to move the capital 1300 kilometers north. Astana is totally bizarre, full of enormous highrises, crazy architecture, and shiny new but often shoddily constructed buildings; it’s basically treeless since most of it wasn’t even there a decade ago, and still feels very “unfinished.” It’s an interesting place to visit for a few days, but probably wouldn’t captivate most tourists for long.

DSC_4001DSC_3433 DSC_3933 DSC_3945 DSC_3957 DSC_3215

DSC_3893

Fortunately, I had an ethnomusicology conference to keep me busy for a week, held in the blue “Palace of Creativity” here. We met a lot of great folks, both local organizers/volunteers, and ethnomusicologists hailing from all parts of the world.

DSC_4249DSC_4245 DSC_3504As always, we ran into some friendly young locals who were excited to practice their English and wanted us to take a selfie with them.
DSC_3531
We did make it out of the city once for an excursion to a national park a few hours away, closer to Kazakhstan’s northern border (with Russia).

DSC_3653

DSC_3700 DSC_4103

Kazakhstan’s population is majority Muslim, and Astana accordingly has a few brand-new, shiny and enormous mosques around, befitting of the city’s general approach to everything. One day I took a quick walk over to this white one, the largest mosque in the country, and was entranced by the beautiful ornamentation and peaceful atmosphere inside.

Our flight back to Georgia included another lengthy layover, this time in Kiev.

DSC_4400

We took a tour of the city’s old and new sights, capped off by a visit to the mansion of mysteriously super-rich oligarch and former president Yanukovych. After he fled the country in early 2014, his estate was seized by local activists, who have preserved it as a “Museum of Corruption.” Imagine what a 12-year-old with bad taste tasked with designing a stereotypical rich person’s mansion might include, and it’s probably there. Taxidermied lions? Solid glass tables covered with gold leaf? Ornately carved geometrical hardwood floors that are completely hidden from sight by thick Persian rugs? A secret underground passageway leading from the house to a spa? An Orthodox chapel, complete with altar, filled with gold- and jewel-covered icons? All this and more, at the piddling cost of your eternal soul…

DSC_4530

Next time, I’ll post some pictures from our summer in Georgia!

A Little Bit about our City, Tbilisi

A Little Bit about our City, Tbilisi

For the first few months of our time in Georgia, we’ve been living in Tbilisi, the capital and largest city in Georgia.

DSC_1291

The name “Tbilisi” is derived from the Georgian word for “warm” (“tbili”). The city was famous for its natural sulphur baths, and there is still a district named for them. I haven’t gone yet, but definitely want to.

DSC_0946
Near the bottom centre, you can see the rounded brick dome of one of the baths in Old Tbilisi.

By the way, if you can’t figure out how to pronounce this name, you’re definitely not alone! A lot of foreigners approximate something like “Tuhbleezee” since “tb” isn’t a very kind consonant cluster (“tbeeleesee” is more accurate though). I guess it’s only fair; naming the capital city thus is like a big “beware of dog” sign for foreigners, warning them to stay away from this language since it gets even harder…

DSC_1848
Believe me, it gets much, much worse.

 

Tbilisi has a long history, dating from its founding around 450 CE. It was attacked and partially destroyed many times, whether by Arab, Turkish, Mongol, or Persian armies; due to this, few really ancient buildings are still around, although there are some really old fortresses and churches and the like. During this time (and actually until about 1930), most of the world referred to the city as “Tiflis.”

DSC_1006

Around 1800, the Russian Empire annexed Georgia (they were partially invited as protection against the Persians, but it’s a complex scenario).

DSC_2800

The 1800s brought a lot more European influence to the city via its new Russian overlords, including such necessities as an opera house and ballet. A lot of the older buildings still standing in Tbilisi date from the Russian colonial period.

DSC_0284

Throughout the 1800s (as in most earlier periods), Armenians were actually the majority population of the city, with ethnic Georgians being primarily a rural people at the time. It wasn’t until the Soviet period that the city’s Georgian numbers first matched and then began to overtake those of the Armenians. Tbilisi was the largest city in the Caucasus for most of its history, until Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, experienced an oil boom around 1900.

DSC_2705

The Soviet period was a time of major urban and demographic growth, leading to the building of many of these beautiful Khrushchev apartment complexes.

DSC_3106

In addition to these big apartment blocks, many people today live in “Italian courtyards,” which include several small flats or houses encircling a small open space (mostly a parking lot crossed by clotheslines). They are set back from the road by a short passage, making street noise more bearable. Here’s the entrance to our courtyard.

DSC_0228

The 1990s were pretty dark times in Georgia (both figuratively and literally–civil war, roving militias and civil instability meant that basic utilities like electricity and water were unpredictable or just totally nonexistent). Some damaged areas still haven’t been repaired–I don’t know if that’s the story with the house directly below or not, but something’s clearly not right.

DSC_0474

Today, Tbilisi comes across a little bit like a silent film diva who has reached her tenth decade and is dressed in the garments from her first starring role. The beauty is still there if you look for it, but it’s seen better days.

DSC_2094

The intricate ironwork of doors and balconies is often now overshadowed by peeling paint and crumbling walls.

DSC_2638

 

DSC_2629

The neoliberal phase that followed 2004’s “Rose Revolution” saw the construction of a whole lot of flashy new buildings and monuments, some of them wildly out of step with the style of their surroundings. This is the famous “Peace Bridge,” which some people like and others despise.

DSC_8819

The picture below (taken from the Peace Bridge) shows 3 of Tbilisi’s most obvious new structures, the Presidential Palace (the thing with the pickle dome on top), Sameba cathedral (the seat of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch), and this odd pair of shiny slugs that apparently was supposed to become a concert hall but has remained unopened for more than 5 years (when viewed from another angle, Yok likens it to a pair of prone spread legs, which hopefully is not what the architect was going for).

DSC_0496

Tbilisi can be a pretty hectic place. These cars are driving past the Justice Hall, a large building which conveniently combines the functions of institutions like the DMV, social security, national health insurance, and most other civil services under one (OK, one oddly sectioned and overlapping) roof. Many people refer to it as the “mushroom building.”

DSC_0365

DSC_8793

At 1.5 million, it’s the largest city any of us has lived in (hey, we’re from Winnipeg, OK?), but it still has its quieter spots, perfect for a leisurely family stroll.

DSC_1171

Of course, the hilly terrain can turn even a leisurely stroll into a feat of endurance.

DSC_0873
No tricks of perspective here.

But the hills are worth it when you can get blossoms in February (the day this was taken it was about -14 in Winnipeg).

DSC_1239

There are also enough parks nearby to keep Rosa happy most of the time, plus we get to try to decipher graffiti in multiple languages and alphabets.

DSC_0745

DSC_0255

The verdict for now? Tbilisi’s an interesting place to live in and experience, despite some obvious shortcomings. You’re welcome to come visit us any time!

DSC_2110

A Trip to Armenia

A Trip to Armenia

As usual, I’ve gotten way behind with my blog posts. More will be coming soon, but for now, for those of you who don’t have facebook and haven’t seen them already, here are some pictures of my recent trip to Armenia.

DSC_4789
A little harvesting and the trip could have paid for itself…

Armenia is Georgia’s neighbour to the south, a small country of about 3 million (though about 8 million more people with Armenian heritage live around the world). It’s much more ethnically homogenous than Georgia, with only about 2% being ethnic minorities (primarily Kurds and Yezidis). The Armenian language is Indo-European, thus completely unlike Georgian. Along with Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia was one of 3 South Caucasus Soviet republics.

DSC_4752
Why on earth would anyone want to live in such a place?

Armenia was famously the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official state religion, way back around 300 CE (Georgia, again, was number two). Despite this, I have found Georgia to be much more openly religious; I’ve seen far more churches in Georgia than in Yerevan.

DSC_4743

Last week, I travelled with a Georgian tour group to Yerevan for 3 days for a System of a Down concert. I’m not really a hardcore metalhead (and the hardcore metalheads generally don’t like this band anyway), but I’ve long considered SOAD to be one of the more creative heavy bands out there, mostly due to the frontman’s voice.

DSC_5034
Finally squeezing through this crush of eager concertgoers felt like emerging from the womb, except I was crying with relief rather than disappointment. Also note: new alphabet!
DSC_5169
I guess I need to join the 21st century by taking a selfie, but I don’t have to be happy about it.

DSC_5223

And “Chop Suey” is quite simply a killer song and a perfect mixture of downtuned power chord aggression, operatic bombast, and harmonic-minor heartstring tugging. In my humble opinion, of course.

I have to open this post with a tiny history lesson. For the Republic of Armenia, this is an incredibly symbolic year, as it marks the 100th year since the Armenian Genocide of 1915, where up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed during their forced expulsion from the Ottoman Empire. This historic event remains controversial mainly in terms of the exact numbers killed and semantics. The government of Turkey has long insisted that only 500,000 Armenians died of starvation and in the conflicts accompanying WWI, and that “genocide” is not an accurate description of what happened since it wasn’t a deliberate campaign of extermination (which Armenians and many historians contradict). Somewhat surprisingly, Turkey’s current president, Erdogan, not exactly a bleeding-heart liberal, last year stated that what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians was “inhumane” and unfortunate.

DSC_5016
Purple forget-me-not: the symbol of the genocide

Armenia in turn has demanded that every country around the world, especially Turkey, recognize the events of 1915 as genocide, though only about 2 dozen countries have agreed so far, including Canada, France, and very recently, Germany. In any event, this issue is far too complicated for my short summary to do it justice; I’d suggest doing some research of your own (just…please avoid the comments section of ANY news article on this topic if you still maintain a single shred of faith in humanity). I haven’t even got into the black hole that is Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, but man, if you thought the conflict between Israel and Palestine looked intractable…

DSC_5295
This sign was everywhere

April 24 of every year is genocide memorial day for the millions of Armenians around the world, and System of a Down, as Armenian-Americans, wanted to have a free concert in their ethnic homeland to mark this event. Right now, there are many commemorative signs and monuments set up throughout the entire country, many of them featuring the purple flower symbol. This topic is completely unavoidable when talking about Armenia, particularly when you travel there at this time of year. As SOAD’s lead singer stated at one point, “We are a nation of survivors.” For Armenians, the events of 1915 occupy a similar place in their historical self-conception as the Holocaust does for Jews.

DSC_5110
Waiting around for 3 hours for the concert to start

In any event, I found Yerevan to be a pleasant city with lots of green spaces, very pedestrian-friendly (the cars here actually stop when you’re walking across the road, which was a shock after living in Tbilisi for almost 3 months), and full of delicious kebab and shawarma.

DSC_4973
Yerevan park
DSC_5071
The only church(es) I saw in Yerevan
DSC_4873
My young Georgian roommates, who kindly took it upon themselves to be my hosts and translators in a foreign land. They also taught me a few Kartuli cuss words. Thanks, Irakli, Luka, and Giorgi!

Of course, there was the challenge of a completely new alphabet; I also found that English was less useful here than in Georgia and I had to try to rely on my severely atrophied Russian (almost a complete failure, though I did manage to direct the taxi back to the right hotel at the very least).

DSC_5019
But at least I can laugh at the Russians over this.

Many of the buildings in Yerevan are an interesting pinkish colour since they were all sourced from the same quarry during the Soviet years.

DSC_4932

Although Armenia has an ancient history, Yerevan as a major city isn’t actually that old. In fact, Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, was populated by a majority Armenian population for centuries, while the Georgians were primarily rural; this is one demonstration of the interconnectedness of ethnic groups and territories in the Caucasus.

DSC_5007

In addition to Yerevan, we stopped by Lake Sevan, a famous landmark in the area, on the way back to Georgia.

DSC_5344

Only a few hours from Tbilisi, Armenia is definitely worth the visit, and I’m looking forward to taking Yok and Rosa there next time.

DSC_4907
Well, this is supposed to be the Armenian flag against the real one in the distance, but photographer fail. In any event, when travelling in the Caucasus (or maybe just with Georgians?), a time-killing device is an absolute must.
So, Why Georgia? A Crash Course in Georgian Folk Music

So, Why Georgia? A Crash Course in Georgian Folk Music

Most of you know that we’re in Georgia because I [Matt] am doing something vaguely music-related. I’m currently involved in fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology, a field that studies music as a cultural and human phenomenon, something with a social context (though admittedly, I’m talking more about the musical sounds themselves in this post). So, why might an ethnomusicologist be interested in Georgia?

IMG_2734
Duh…because you get to wear a sword and gunpowder cartridge bandoliers when you sing.

Well, yeah. The swords are pretty cool–you don’t get to wear one of those in the Mennonite church choir–but so are the musical sounds. World music lovers mostly know Georgia for its folk polyphony (polyphony literally means “multiple sounds”–i.e. harmony). It’s a vocal style that usually has 3 simultaneous parts going. But the rules of the harmony are different from those with which most North Americans and Western Europeans are familiar. Western harmony (both European classical music and most of the Western popular music of the last few centuries) is based around major and minor tonality; Georgian polyphony includes some major and minor triads but also features tons of more unique chords that come across as wonderfully “dissonant” to a Western ear.

IMG_2866
I guess that even includes Canadian and Australian ears.

Hope you’re ready for lots of youtube clips. In this example below, the dissonant chords are created partially by voices that are improvising in the moment, while always knowing how to come back together at the end of phrases. To give them more freedom, most of the words are nonsense syllables, the Georgian equivalent of “fa la la.”

If you’re not used to it, it may sound weird or even unpleasant, but to a harmony nerd like me, singing this stuff is like eating candy. One of the “songmasters” I’ve learned from in Georgia once told us that people with good musical ears like Georgian music because it gives them a sonic challenge, trying to figure out the new rules of harmony and tuning. Since it massages my ego, let’s just go with that for now…

Georgian music is also fun to sing because the style can be either gutsy and raw, or capable of great virtuosity and expressiveness–just check out the example below. Men’s singing groups tend to be especially prized–singing was traditionally associated with masculine activities like working in the fields and overindulging in wine at supras–and the presentation style is very informed by Caucasus ideals of masculinity and honour. For this reason, some ethnomusicologists have recently been applying a feminist analysis to Georgian polyphony performance, but that’s another story. This example also shows the typical makeup of a Georgian ensemble: one top voice, one middle voice, and everybody else singing the bass part as a group.

Despite that, there are also specific women’s songs (especially lullabies, healing songs, and the like), and some great women’s ensembles performing in Georgia today. Many Georgian Orthodox church choirs are comprised mainly of women, and here’s an example of church chant, which is also in three parts and follows a harmonic system related to that of folk polyphony:

Music historians used to argue that harmony was “invented” by European monks about 1000 years ago. The existence of various kinds of folk polyphony all around the world has disproved this hypothesis, and some Georgian researchers suggest that their unique kind of multipart singing has possibly been around for two or three thousand years. It’s impossible to prove that conclusively, of course, but there are ancient artifacts from the area showing people dancing in configurations similar to round dances like this one:

The above example comes from Svaneti, the region of Georgia in which I’m most interested, and where we hope to spend at least half of our time in Georgia. Svaneti has awesomely dissonant harmonies (often it’s hard to tell if chords are major or minor due to their being so far from equal temperament) as well as many interesting preserved folk traditions. More on that later. Some of you may be interested to note that the timing of the steps that start at 0:45 in this example doesn’t correspond with that of the singing–the vocal parts are counted in 8 but the steps are counted in 7. No problem, right?

One of the most famous features of Georgian traditional polyphony is a special kind of yodelling called “krimanchuli.” You can hear it in this clip first around the 0:45 mark. This is also an interesting example to watch because the filming technique lets you pick out each specific voice and hear how they fit together (although since the song alternates between a trio and the larger choir, half the time the camera seems to be panning past people while they aren’t actually singing!).

Georgian vocal polyphony may be the most famous musical product of the country, but there are also traditional folk instruments, several of which I’m learning to play. The Svanetian changi (harp) and chuniri (upright bowed fiddle) are shown in the first picture in this post. Here’s an example of both in action, plus the chance to hear another women’s ensemble:

And here’s me sawing away at the chuniri owned by our Australian friend Denise, who visited us last week on her way to Svaneti.

DSC_2570

More common folk instruments in Georgia include the chonguri and panduri, here pictured with a more familiar object for size comparison.

DSC_1597

Most of the time, these instruments are used to accompany voices. However, my friend Ben, who’s also an ethnomusicologist, has been studying Georgian instrumental music and has a lot of interesting posts on the subject at his blog. Currently, I’m taking a short study program in Georgian folk music at the Tbilisi State Conservatory, which includes history and theory but also lots of song and instrument lessons. Right now, I’m learning the chonguri. Here’s a picture of a lesson with my teacher, Nino, who brought us along with her and her family to Achara a few weeks ago (as discussed in the previous post).

DSC_2608

To finish things off, here’s a video featuring both panduri and chonguri, as well as everyone’s favourite, the bagpipes. But first, it wouldn’t be “Sakartvelo with Baby” without at least one baby picture.

DSC_2329
Forgive the bad technique, this was before my first lesson!
Georgian Feasting and Hospitality

Georgian Feasting and Hospitality

A mountain morning view.
A mountain morning view.

At the end of our Georgian FAQ, I briefly mentioned Georgian feasting traditions. It seems like a good time to talk a little bit more about them, since we got some firsthand experience last weekend. A friend invited us to travel with her and her husband to Merisi, a mountainous village in Achara, which is the southwestern region of Georgia that borders Turkey and the Black Sea. She knew a lot of traditional singers in the area, and was bringing her own young daughter along too. Staying in mountain farmhouses, eating homemade local food, and experiencing rural Georgian music and hospitality? Obviously, saying “yes” was a total no-brainer.

Plus, Rosa's already getting tatted up and we need to get her away from that urban environment.
Plus, Rosa’s already getting tatted up and we need to get her away from the negative influences of the urban environment.

In traditional Caucasus custom, the host/guest bond is an absolutely sacred and unshakeable one. In Georgian thinking, the guest is viewed as a gift from God, and you can still observe this kind of attitude in more rural parts of the country. One of Georgia’s most famous poets, Vazha Pshavela, wrote a famous piece called “Host and Guest” that narrates the story of a man who takes in a stranger who, unbeknownst to him, is actually the murderer of his own brother and many of his kin. When the host’s neighbours come to his door with damning evidence, baying for blood, the host takes up arms against them and even kills one, rather than breaking his obligation to protect his guest.

DSC_1511
Taking a dip in the Merisi swimming hole might be worth killing for, too. Even in February.

So, yeah. We didn’t get mixed up in any blood vendettas, but we encountered something at least 10% as potentially dangerous. Between 12:30 AM (yes) on Friday night/Saturday morning, and 4:00 PM on Sunday afternoon, we attended no less than SIX feasts. Maybe some of them were considered by our hosts to be nothing more than a light meal, but when guests are involved in Georgia, even a snack basically turns into a massive display of prodigious hospitality that really needs to be seen to be believed.

The aftermath of number one.
The aftermath of number one, 2:30 AM on Saturday morning.

The “supra” is one of the most visible Georgian customs, one with an immediate appeal and charm for many first-time visitors to the country. Picture this: a long narrow table set with anywhere from eight to twenty (or more) types of food, including bread, cheese, fresh and cooked vegetables, stews, various kinds of meat, all divided onto small plates so every different dish is within arm’s length of every diner. As the meal progresses, servers keep bringing out new dishes, to the point where they’re literally stacking plates of food on top of each other. It may not seem logical, but the visual aesthetic of abundance is a crucial part of the experience (those who help with preparation usually go home with a lot of leftovers).

DSC_1550
Tablecloth’s only 90% covered, still room for more.

It’s not just about food, though; at one end of the table you’ll encounter a figure called the “tamada” or toastmaster, who is responsible for the flow of events and for directing the toasts. In old tradition, these had to follow a rather fixed order, something like first to God, then to St. George, then to Mary, to various persons present, to ancestors who have passed on, to future generations, etc. Today, the toasts are more free and fitted specifically to the occasion.

DSC_2238
A “qvevri,” a traditional container usually buried in the ground to store and age wine. If you’re wondering, yes, some people have literally drowned in wine.

If you’re lucky, the toasts will be made with wine. I mentioned in the earlier post about how important wine is as a national symbol here (I was just told by a museum guide today that Georgia has 5000 kinds of grapes and 3000 kinds of wine). If you’re less lucky, the toasts will be made with chacha, the local grape-derived vodka/moonshine.

DSC_1411
Keti was shocked to see Rosa drinking clear liquid out of this chacha glass (…it was actually water, of course). Her family kindly hosted us on our first night in Merisi.

Wine toasts have several special kinds of vessels associated with them; a special toast may need to be given with a ceramic bowl that can be reasonably sized or absolutely monstrous. Sometimes a drinking horn or “qantsi” is used (either ceramic or an actual animal horn), with the idea being that the curved shape of the horn forces the drinker to finish all the wine in one gulp, since it can’t be placed back on the table without spilling the contents.

DSC_1582
I say “გაუმარ” (gaumar), you say “ჯოს” (jos)!

Supras are also the occasion for a lot of singing. Georgia has a whole genre of “table songs” specifically designed for this kind of setting. At the biggest of the supras we attended last weekend (a combination 3rd birthday and baptism celebration for the host’s grandson), I sang the bass part in a trio for a “Mravalzhamier” (a very common type of table song) that I’d learned on a previous trip to Georgia. Watching the reaction of the host and guests was humbling, as I was then immediately toasted myself by about a dozen different older men, who praised the love of foreigners for Georgian music and deplored the lax attitude of many of their fellow citizens toward their own traditions. I was also requested to make another toast with the drinking bowl (like all the adult men present, I’d already made one for the young boy being honoured with the feast)…fortunately this was a wine-only supra, and no chacha was in sight, or I probably wouldn’t have made it through the three supras that were still to come.

DSC_1556
A 3-generation family choir, with friends.

Anyway, this is just a brief look at Georgian hospitality, and a heartfelt “didi madloba” (big thanks) for the graciousness of the people of Merisi, who so generously welcomed a family of Canadian strangers, and for the kindness of my teacher Nino and her husband Lasha, who brought us on their family vacation. As always, Rosa offered us immediate passage through the differences of language and custom. Next time, I promise to finally talk about Georgian music, the reason we’re here in the first place!

DSC_1653
The wonderful Turmanidze family, hosts for our second night.