Due to a short bout with the flu and a whirlwind trip to the capital, I neglected to write about a memorable day spent with a group of Georgian twenty-somethings at a river near the Turkish border. My host mother’s niece Maia had invited me to accompany her and her friends to grill shishkebabs “in nature.” I was little prepared for the adventure that was about to ensue.
The outing was slated ot begin at noon, but–as so often happens here–that turned out to be 12:00 GMT (Georgian Maybe Time). Two hours of milling and idle chit-chat later, a critical mass of acquaintances had assembled from various points along the coast and a dilapidated Ford conversion van with license plate GAS appeared to convey us to our destination.
The harrowing journey out of Batumi (vehicles here seem to almost unanimously lack seatbelts, shocks, and drivers with a sense of their own mortality) was punctuated with several stops to collect additional revelers, cigarettes, homemade wine from somebody’s grandfather’s jug, and other miscellaneous necessities.
When we arrived at a series of airy wooden huts near a shallow creek surrounded by hills (a place called Machakhala, for those of you who may want to visit), the 13 of us clambered out of our dusty, lumbering chariot and began to unload the provisions. Though we hadn’t stopped at a single grocery store on the way, there was more food in the back than an entire refrigerator could hold. Before I could see what it all was, Maia whisked me down to the river to contemplate the scenery and its attendant cattle population while Shakira’s “Waka Waka” provided the ambiance.
Back in the hut, lunch preparations were underway. When it comes to picnics, the gender roles in Georgia break down just as they tend to in the US: men handle the grilling and the alcohol, women most everything else. When Maia and I returned from the riverbank (passing another group of Georgian men getting their groove on to “Single Ladies”), her friends Mari and Miranda were cutting bread, dicing tomatoes and cucumbers (I don’t think I’ve yet encountered a meal here that didn’t include this simple salad), slicing homemade pizza (with mayonnaise…always with mayonnaise), and setting the table for what turned out to be a meal of epic proportions. Cubes of raw beef impaled on skewers lay at the ready in one corner. No sooner had the men swooped in with pitchers full of straw-colored homemade wine than the feasting, toasting, and musical entertainment began.
With more men than women in attendance, it came as no surprise to me that this particular supra focused primarily on the liquid aspect of the meal. Toasts were proposed to Georgia, to me and the other guests visiting the region from Tbilisi, to the “Georgian patriots” who died in the 2008 war against Russia, to ancestors, parents, and women in general. After that they stopped translating, and frankly it’s unlikely the toasts made much logical sense to anyone by that point.
The thing about wine in this country is that it is not meant to be sipped, at least not by men. With each toast, males traditionally toss the whole glass back in one long, highly intoxicating gulp. (“Bolomde!” the tamada (designated toastmaster) commands. “To the bottom!”) Stealing sips from your cup before the tamada has pronounced a toast is considered bad form. Thus white wine more often appears at long feasts than red wine–it’s better for pounding, they say. Generally women are exempt from this expectation, but among younger circles they may participate for fun.
After putting several glasses back, Mari’s brother Giga pulled out his Georgian bagpipe (called a chiboni) and giddy attempts at Ajaran folk dancing ensued. When my head started to spin, I weaved my way down to the river to take a nap on a stone with the girls while the merrymaking continued above. It continued the whole way back to Batumi (by which point the men had burst into song). I thanked my lucky stars for the designated driver and crawled, still stuffed, into bed.