“The moment we were born, the moment we entered the world, so many people were happy. Our mothers, fathers, relatives; the doctor who delivered us, the nurses that helped; maybe some guys hanging out with our fathers said ‘Cheers!’ or ‘Congratulations!’ and patted our dads on the back. So many people and we don’t even know their names, who they were. Let’s drink to all those people who were happy that we were born – that with this toast we can say ‘thank you’ to them.”
The year was 2001, and I had just crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia with my partner, Justyna. The Batumi train to Tbilisi had been roasting under the blistering June sun all day. Boarding with heavy backpacks, we were instantly pummeled with the grim reality that the windows of these Soviet-born wagons were all sealed shut; save for one in the middle, just big enough for three heads to poke out, panting for air.
The conductor slid our cabin door open to a steaming sauna with two slouching, pained-faced Georgian men inside engaged in the futile task of wiping the endless stream of sweat from their foreheads and back of the necks with soaked handkerchiefs.
“It does not open,” Dato, one of our new cabin mates, said as I struggled to crack a window.
While waiting for the train to lurch forward, we made our introductions. I bought four warm beers from a freelancing vendor walking the aisles with her bags and offered a couple to our travel partners. They politely declined, preferring vodka instead, which they bought from another woman, along with khachapuri, as we began to roll.
The first toast – our very first in Georgia – was to our meeting. We clinked plastic cups and knocked the fevered spirit down our hatches. More toasts followed, naturally (two bottles worth), and while we will never remember all the things we drank for, we won’t ever forget how the drinking ritual brought us together and forged a bonding fellowship, even if it was for a short-lived 12-hour trip.
In Tbilisi at 8 a.m., the sweat long dried out of us, our heads jack-hammering to hell, we will never shake the image of our new pal Dato’s despondent look as he waved goodbye from the back seat of his ride. “Call me,” he mouthed.
Minutes later, an old friend arrived and whisked us away to his in-laws where the razzmatazz would start all over again, only this time at a dining room table full of food, chacha and wine. I recall a toast Sasha, our host, made to our countries. He talked about how roots are the foundation of our nations and declared, “If you don’t love your country, you have no roots.”
Little did I know then that we would plant our roots here in Georgia and there would be thousands of more toasts in our lives; some mere lip service to cultural ceremony, others capable of jerking tears to our eyes in their beauty and sincerity.
While toasts are made anytime two or more friends are gathered around a bottle of wine or spirits, whether at a bar or under a tree, the alcoholic salutation is part and parcel of the supra – the feast – which is perhaps the most impressive Georgian tradition.
The table can be as long as a stretch limousine, sagging under the weight of four stories of dishes loaded with delectable foods. At the head is the tamada, the toastmaster, chosen for his wit, eloquence and imperviousness to alcohol (or he may simply be the host), who dictates the drinking pace and table rules. At really big supras, like wedding parties, there may be a deputy tamada at the other end of the table or room with a microphone.
The supra is not a dinner as much as it is performance art.
People often say the first toast is always to peace, which is not entirely true. But even when it is, that is no guarantee the supra will conclude harmoniously. I was at one wedding supra that ended in a full-on West Side Story brawl, where all the guests took to the dance floor and punched, kicked and ripped themselves to shreds while I watched the melee with the bride and groom in utter dismay.
In fact, the first drink usually goes to the unanimously “elected” tamada, a kind of “green light toast” that kicks things off. He then goes through an inherent checklist of tributes that might start with God and move on to friendship, parents, country, the deceased, children, women and a couple dozen more. The Patriarch of the Georgian church will probably get one, and sometimes, particularly in Gori, you might be forced to drink to Stalin, the most famous tamada of all.
Georgians, he noted, “drink a lot but never get drunk.”
There is a school of thought that the custom of toasting as we know it was established in the 19th century when Russia annexed Georgia. Some scholars like Florian Mühlfried argue that the words “toast” and “toast maker” didn’t exist before and that Georgians lifted the “art of toasting” from Russian aristocrats and literature. Others like Ghia Nodia, contend that the supra was a “response to the shock of modernization” and a simulation of “cultural sovereignty” during the period of occupation.
Traditionally, “the supra was a space where all kinds of business issues were decided, and to control the members of the table, they needed a leader – the tamada – to maintain discipline and follow the rules,” states historian Maka Shengelia. “Before the 19th century, there was only victory toasting connected to peace and God,” she adds.
There are academics, however, who point to documented evidence of drinking rituals, long before the Russians annexed Georgia. Anthropologist Giorgi Kipiani notes how poets recited pun toasts in Queen Tamara’s 12th-century court and how the 17th-century Italian missionary Christoforo Castelli wrote of the deep respect men had towards toasting and how they would kneel while drinking. Even bishops would take a knee for toasts to women. Georgians, he noted, “drink a lot but never get drunk.”
The toast, regardless of how it evolved, is a remarkable tradition, even if it can sometimes be an exercise in banality. Drinking the obligatory toast to women, who are too busy slaving in the kitchen to enjoy the supra, comes to mind. However, the toast can also rescue us from such vapidity by being a means to talk about our dreams, feelings and beliefs and raise the level of table intimacy from chit-chat to communion.
One night at a so-called “democratic supra, ” where guests drink free from the constraints of traditional etiquette, a friend proposed we all make a toast to our first loves, alaverdi style, which is to elaborate on a toast the tamada has made. In this case, we each shared personal stories about why these loves were important to us, what we remember or learned from them.
However agreeable it is to see drinking customs change at wine bars and cafés, where people can relax and sip without having to chug to their ancestors, I have found after all these years that it is hard to live without clinking glasses and saying something more than cheers or salut. Either you toast or you don’t.
I have also learned that the Georgian toast is precisely that. It does not export well.
Once in California, at my 88-year-old father’s watering hole, I had a moment. We were sitting with his friends, playing Liar’s Dice. “Guys,” I said raising my glass of bourbon with a wet eye. “I live halfway around the world from my father and rarely get the chance to see him. But I am lucky he has you guys, his friends here to look after him…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” his friend Dave snapped, cutting off my toast to friendship. “Drink your drink and roll your fucking dice.”
Dad, who had visited us in Tbilisi, stepped in for the rescue. “In Georgia, toasting is a tradition. You can’t drink without making one. And this is a sign of respect,” he said clinking the rim of his glass below the rim of mine.