Yesterday I wrote in part about travel, and I want to continue in that vein for today’s post. In 2006 I traveled to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to visit my friend Susan for a few weeks. She was there on a Fulbright Fellowship at the time. The trip (which was spent mostly in Tbilisi, though we also traveled to the Caucasus and to the Black Sea) was fabulous and life-expanding in too many ways to name here, but I want to dwell for a moment on one custom the Georgians have that I particularly appreciated: the supra. A supra is basically an elaborate dinner/party, but not really. Its dimensions and internal character are much more in line with feast.
At regular intervals (between delicious courses, rounds of wine-pouring, and outbursts of you-won’t-believe-it-till-you-hear-it Georgian singing), the man who happens to be presiding over this particular supra (he is called the tamada) stands at the head of the long table and embarks on elaborate and heartfelt speeches. He selects a new broad topic each time he speaks, be it love, family, country, friendship, etc., and from that breadth would descend slowly into lovely and detailed toasts that bore little resemblance to any toast I’d heard before. Others around the table could speak too, if they were moved to. S/he might follow up on or extend the original topic.
Since Georgia is so intensely a host culture (meaning, guests are treated as precious and worthy no matter who they are), any guests present are turned to and invited to speak too. Susan had warned me of this ahead of time, and I must say, I was fairly trepidatious about it, even before I set foot in the country. But once there, something different came over me; I found it seemed only natural to speak my heart to this group of welcoming near-strangers. It’s been five years ago now, so it’s hard for me to get in touch with the precise collision of ingredients that allowed this shift, but – what can I say? It’s a magical place. And surely the sublimity of the landscape gets under your skin and deeper too.
What struck me when I stopped to think about it – in between dreamy spells – was how refreshing their free-of-irony musings on the essentials of their lives were. And I like irony. I also like people with slant, sly, under-doggish humor, who analyze things to the bone and appreciate nuance more than most other qualities. And yet, the distilled earnestness of the Georgians struck me as something I’d been missing out on. It made other kinds of talk seem impoverished. Conversations of this sort were not a terribly regular occurrence with people I’d known for years and saw on a daily basis, yet somehow felt like what were called for in this new context, with these new people. Even Susan and I talked to each other differently; we had been good friends for a number of years, but our friendship took a deepening turn during that visit. What seemed an implicit undercurrent to the supra speeches and to the zero-to-sixty conversations (according my memory I had no small talk in Georgia, though certainly that can’t be true…), was the question, “What else would we talk about?” Or perhaps, “Why on earth would we talk about anything else?”
Of course, there is always a flipside. And where I witnessed the flipside was in the faces of the wives of the men who were speechifying. One was chewing gum, looking around, very nonplussed. Another time two of the wives were speaking lowly back and forth to each other in the middle of the chin-lifted speech of the tamada, right under his nose. I had confused feelings about this. On the one hand, it got my ire up. How disrespectful and flippant to be smacking gum or carrying on a conversation when your husband (or anyone) is giving himself over to this absorbing and energetic speech (which I personally had been utterly swept up in) about his devotion to his home and family! On the other hand, the more delayed hand, I thought, Ah… Of course… She’s heard this all before. Many, many times. She’d heard it and probably wondered where all that lofty talk went when he was barking for a sandwich from his easy-chair and leaving her with the four children all the time.
Some insight about the wives’ actions came afterward from Susan, who had a more nuanced understanding of these dynamics than I could from my three-weeks’ visit. And of course, had I been in my own country, who knows – maybe I would have been eye-rolling too. In my usual life I tend to mistrust broad, lofty talk about family and… gasp… family values! I associate it with politician-speak and know the ugly under-belly that kind of talk can hide, who and what it can exclude – what it’s sometimes designed to exclude -- and how often it's used to cover up realities that are less simply spoken about. It’s true that I found a more finely-wrought, poetic cast in the way the Georgians went about this kind of talk – and that difference goes a very long way – but I think that, even in Georgia, the speeches I enjoyed most and felt most uncomplicated about were those concerning friendship. The same would probably have been true in the U.S. Friendship is more horizontally than vertically cast by nature, because it isn’t so tied up with the institutions people get so worked up to protect. So here’s to friendship! that light-footed, traveling home of a gift. And also, here’s sending wishes of safe-keeping to my friend Susan, who lives in London now. I spoke to her this morning and though streets were burning as near as ten minutes from her house on Monday evening, she thinks the worst of the riots (in London, anyway) might have passed.