I’m finally doing it, I’m finally going to breakdown and analyse a typical Georgian supra from the perspective of a foreign girl! I have a lot to say and it won’t just be about the food so get comfy and let’s dig in…
So where do I start? I’ve lived in Georgia for 9 months now and have definitely experienced my fair share of supras. So much so that I pretty much understand everything perfectly and know the right Georgian to respond accurately. I suppose you could say my first taste of Georgian table etiquette was when Shota and I started dating. He would be quite fussy with the wine and do that spinning thing while holding the glass up to the light and I would stare sarcastically assuming he was just trying to show off.
After much fuss about which wine we should drink (we were in the UK and who cares about wine there?) then he’d do a few toasts to us and to our meeting and to our family, our friends, our love… You get the idea. He asked me to toast to “something that made me smile today” and me, being naive, British and somewhat cynical of the whole thing, toasted to Fidel Castro.
So, supras are usually held on special occasions but even general dinner with friends will involve some supra toasts and etiquette. The tamada should tailor toasts to match the event and you will usually hear toasts to God, parents, children, Georgia, whichever holiday they might be celebrating, ancestors, the Patriarch etc etc.
Georgians are very proud of their toasts and they always begin very structured and formal. After each toast, the men (we’ll talk about this later) are generally expected to drink the entire glass of wine (not the usual kind of wine glass, but more like a tumbler) and will most likely share related anecdotes related to the toast and repeat things like wishing health, happiness, wealth and love before moving on. There have been times when I understand a toast, the anecdotes (which I don’t understand well and Shota has to awkwardly translate for me while 10 other people talk loudly across the table) then after an hour there’s another toast, I ask what it’s for because I’ve been daydreaming, only to be told that it’s still the same toast as before, just they’re ’rounding up’ ideas. This is more likely to happen later on in the evening when everyone is suitably drunk and loud.
A typical supra will continue for minimum 4 hours, although I’ve experienced a painful 8 hour supra before. I say painful because I’m British and a family dinner at my house never lasts more than half an hour before we move on to tea and cake. At a supra you have to wait atleast 6 hours before the sweet stuff comes, and that’s if you’re lucky! A supra traditionally continues for several days given the environment, and that means 40 litres of wine or even more can be drank easily.
One thing I really struggle with is eating so much food. I love food, and I’ve always eaten big portions but at a supra it’s endless. I’ve learnt to pace myself at supras now but even then my savoury stomach fills up quite soon and I’m ready to move on to something sweet. As you can see in the photo below, the food piles up. Literally.The wine is the main focus at any supra, and by the time I want cake everyone else is too focused on the wine to care about dessert (sacrilege!). I don’t like to drink a lot of wine, and usually I’m just not in the mood. The non-alcoholic drinks at a supra will be some kind of sparkling water (usually NabeghlaviI, sometimes Borjomi), and some lemonade in flavours of Tarragon, Pear and Vanilla which might as well be liquid cocaine with the effect it has on my heart! If you’re lucky someone might bring still water if you ask nicely, but expect some weird looks and no refills.
I don’t want to be mean about supras, they’re such a big aspect of Georgian tradition and such a unique thing it’d be rude of me. However, from the perspective of a foreigner I find it amusing that I know what to expect now. Usually, I’m the only foreign person at the table, so when the toasts get more fluid I get one dedicated to me, or they ask me to say something. This is when I wow the audience with my minimal Georgian and they ask the same questions – Do I like Georgia? What do I think of the food? Do I miss the UK? Before someone interrupts or the table erupts into song, anyway.
It’s enlightening for me to watch a supra unfold. The general etiquette and hierarchies that take place are fascinating and I think is something people don’t talk about so much, nor do they want to as it could be quite controversial. I have a lot of time to think at supras. I can’t expect Shota to translate every single word to me and honestly, I prefer to be ignored so I can people-watch and absorb what’s happening. Granted, this gets tiring after a few hours and I end up irritated and with a throbbing headache, but atleast there’s always food to entertain me.
Now, I hope not to offend anyone but I just want to explain how I see certain things at supras from a female western perspective, not that I’m imposing anything but I have some issues. Firstly, even if your supra isn’t divided into men on one side and women on the other, then the men and women will act completely differently. It’s a very patriarchal society here so it’s no surprise that men lead the supra. The tamada is always male, and the men are the only ones expected to drink and talk. The women on the other hand, if actually seated at the table too, will chat quietly amongst themselves, avoiding the wine (I don’t think they like it in all honesty) and scrolling through their phones.
If the women aren’t seated at the table, more likely at a home supra than a restaurant supra, then they most likely won’t even be in the same room. As a foreign guest and sans baby in this case leads to some very awkward situations for me. Once at a birthday supra at home (a beautiful house just outside Tbilisi), I followed Shota to the table as he’s the only person I knew there and who speaks English and sat waiting while everyone else joined the table. I soon noticed that only men had sat at the table and they were trying hard not to make me feel bad since I’m foreign and don’t understand but at the same time I definitely knew I was imposing. Eventually I was exiled to the kitchen with the ladies in a polite yet quite forceful way and sat at a small table covered in dirty plates from the men and wanting to be assigned a task just to look busy. This wasn’t gonna happen. I was a guest so they weren’t going to tell me to help wash up or anything, and I didn’t know enough Georgian or know them well enough to know what was going on to just help anyway, nor did I have a child to tend to which all the other women were occupied with.
I sat, feeling useless and left out, trying to catch eye-contact with Shota to telepathically scream “I want to go hoooome!“. The women around me were mostly the older ladies, the host’s mother and her neighbours I guess, and were busy fiddling with food and tending to the table the entire time. The younger girls had their babies in another room and I thought back to the time when an older man at another supra told me that I’d be much more energetic if I had a baby. Arse. Anyway, this is typical of a home supra. The women are so busy tending to the men it makes me squirm. I really admire these ladies though. They put in so much effort and barely eat a morsel for themselves, and the most amazing part is that they never complain about their spoilt and obnoxious sons and husbands!
It’s this aspect of a supra that I find draining and I do my best to hush the feminist in me so not to be disrespectful. After all, I’m a guest and a foreign one at that, and these people are doing their best to show me their Georgian hospitality and traditions. Things that make me cringe because of my upbringing are perfectly normal for Georgians, and I need to get my head around that. It’s perfectly okay if you reach over someone’s plate to grab something, or if you interrupt each other, but god forbid you dominate conversation as a woman, or talk about a taboo topic when they’re trying to explain to everyone how important 5th cousins are.
Now very briefly because I know this post is long, but I just want to explain what to expect from a restaurant supra and a home supra. I should do this now since Shota and I attended both in a row last night and I’m feeling pretty fragile about it today.
So, at a restaurant. You will most likely be there for a birthday and it will be in a large room that should be used for weddings, with various tables of different parties and supras happening simultaneously. You walk into a thick smog of cigarette smoke, blocking the seductive smells from the rich cuisine, and are seated next to someone you don’t know at a long table. Once seated you’re able to avoid the worst part of the cigarette smog, until your neighbour decides to light-up and doesn’t stop chain smoking for the next few hours. She’s doing that instead of eating so you can only imagine. You probably won’t know most of the people around you and it’s likely that these people will be as old-fashioned as possible in their views and give you and your Georgian partner some sideways glances as they try to work out if you’re a nasha or not.
You keep your head down, avoiding eye-contact and enjoying the only foods within reach (fortunately for me last night I was surrounded by pickles) and watch the waitresses in admiration for the hard job they have and how elegantly they conduct themselves considering. (Also apparently they’re only paid 20GEL for a whole day’s work? Are you kidding me?! That’s the minimum I expect per hour for my English lessons). The other table has been here longer so has already made it to the drunk stage. On one side, a man yells a toast about love, while the other side a man in a chokha yells back in appreciation despite his croaky throat and spilt wine. In between, the mix of men and women talk amongst themselves and between the legs of the few men that have decided to stand on their chairs, one of which is a priest – straight out of Medieval Georgia in his appearance, despite the Rolex on his arm and the slang he spews to his friends, all with the status of a Father.
Meanwhile, your supra gets drunk and the toasts are limited to every five minutes between songs that the deafeningly-loud singers are performing. It’s cheesey, overly-warbly music which can just be understood over the buzzing from the speakers. People love it and get up to dance, which is always nice, albeit embarrassing when they’re sexy-dancing to what seems like bad lift music to me. Georgians are always keen to sing, dance and perform, and have no shame even if they’re not very good. It’s impressive, really, for a socially awkward British girl. Everyone is quite competitive, whether it’s how they look, how loud they are, or how well they sing. Of course it’s nice to see people enjoying themselves, but I can’t help but see it as a massive façade since no-one looks like they’re really enjoying themselves. This is clarified by the group of girls in the bathroom taking selfies and excitedly uploading it to Facebook, then when they join the party they look ready to sleep, let alone crack a smile. Despite aaaaall of this, the cake is brought out quite soon since it’s a school night and the waitresses want to go home.
A home supra is perhaps a little less intense, but with some similarities. As I mentioned before, you’re more likely to see the men and women being separated, and the women look even more like they hate everything. People don’t dress up so much so there’s less of an air of competition, but the men are equally as obnoxious if you’re unlucky. However, home supras are much more enjoyable when the women and babies join in, it feels like a neighbourhood barbecue or something. Besides, I always feel so guilty when the mother of the host brings plates and plates of food that she’s cooked, only to retreat back to the kitchen. Last night at the second supra we attended, she managed to join us and we had a great translated conversation. The food is better quality too, and the wine is always homemade, but you run the risk of someone bringing out the chacha at a home supra, in which case you’re never leaving.
Cake might come, if you’re lucky, but thankfully conversation is more stimulating when in smaller groups. Generally the older generations there will be interested to hear all about what you think about Georgia and how the UK is, and you’re less-likely to be interrupted too. There will be a toddler playing somewhere too which is entertaining while they all get carried away with their toasts. Toasts aren’t so strict, and should lead to funnier anecdotes, however sometimes the depressive drunk will take lead and you end up talking about death for the next 2 hours. As much as the environment is nicer and much more refreshing, it’s more pressure to be well-behaved and to stay in your seat and act as expected. In a large restaurant supra you can generally do as you like since no-one will notice you, but at home people are fascinated by you and your foreign-ness and will stare at you while you eat and don’t understand anything and try to look remotely content and interested even when you’re screaming internally at the misogyny, the gas build-up and the lack of cake.
It’s harder to leave home supras and you pretty much can’t leave until the final drips of the jug have been drunk. That would be okay until the host then rushes to refill it again… Saying goodbye and the toasts involved with having a good journey, thanking for the kind hospitality, admiring their lovely family and wishing them all good health, happiness and love takes another hour or so, then you should linger around by the door while the lady who did all the work fetches a bottle of the homemade wine or a handful of churchkhela for you to take home with you. I do my best to ensure the host (I mean the lady doing all the hard work, since that’s how I consider a host, rather than the tamada) knows that I really appreciated everything and will do my best to be a charming kargi gogo while she’s in the room, telling me I look like Milla Jovovich and showing me paintings she likes around the house.
Good luck if you made it this far and I hope I’ve given some new perspective about Georgian traditions. I didn’t mention everything I wanted to by any means so I’m sure supras will pop-up again at some point. For now it will have to suffice, since I have an essay to finish, soup to cook and Nina Simone to dance to. Have a lovely day!