**The longest post ever. Be forewarned.
I went to my first Georgian wedding over the weekend. Having no idea what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised overall. I even enjoyed myself, which is not always a certain outcome.
The wedding was on Sunday, but preparations began in my family days beforehand. Our dishes and china started disappearing and there seemed to be a frenzy of baking and cooking. Nestani made a cake or two. Neli baked the most khachapuri I have ever seen. The girls seemed to spend almost all day helping down at the wedding house. I felt a little lonely since I was not involved. I thought about forcing myself on them, but knew that realistically having the resident guest wandering around the wedding site might be more of a distraction than a help. This is when it stinks not to be able to really express yourself in the language. So I hung out in my room, mostly under the covers because it was freezing cold. I had to do some stern talking to myself because I was feeling oh-so-morose and ready to forget this whole “wedding” business.
In the end, I managed to pull myself together emotionally and physically. I put on my “glad rags” which ironically are all black. To each her own. I was pleased that the family oohed and ahhed when I came downstairs. Finally I was suitably dressed for once. Since I often wear jeans and a sweatshirt (hey, it’s cold!) and I always wear slacks to school (amidst a sea of skirts) I wanted them to see that I can look feminine according to Georgian standards.
So we set off to the wedding, picking our way through the very muddy streets. Fortunately, the wedding house was only about a block away. A crowd of men were, as usual, leaning against the walls and smoking. We walked the gauntlet and went inside the yard. I gravitated towards the group of teachers inside. Since it was a teacher’s son who was getting married I think we had all been invited. There seemed a significant amount of time to kill. I of course had no idea what was going to happen. Since there was nothing else to do, I pulled out the camera and tried to take pictures. Many of the teachers were not the most willing subjects, although some insisted on being in a picture with me.
I had been deserted by all the females of my family once we got inside the yard. They were off helping with more preparations. After awhile, they came to collect me (which is, indeed, how it often feels) and took me to see the inside of the huge tent which had been put up in part of a field. More picking through the mud. I was suitably impressed by the sight. Four very long tables, absolutely covered with all the items necessary for feasting and loaded down with the food itself. I hate to estimate how many they would seat, but I would guess at least 300 if not more. There was a table set up at the front for the happy couple and their attendants and speakers and microphones in another corner for the evening’s entertainment. More pictures.
Once everything had been photographically documented, I returned to my masts’avleblebi, teachers, outside. Car horns began blazing in the distance and we turned to watch a motorcade coming in. The new couple came in, waving and smiling, looking very dapper and/or beautiful: the son in a suit and the bride in a very Westernized gown with fur stole and a bouquet of flowers. I am not sure if they were coming directly from the church. I do know they were coming from Tbilisi which is about 2 hours away. They disappeared into the house; the guests headed for the tent. My teachers claimed good seats–no seating charts or anything like that. I was uncertain when/if we were supposed to eat; I watched my teachers for all the cues. When they ate, I ate.
At our teacher’s training in Kutaisi, the woman in charge told us you knew it was a good party when the dishes were piled 3 deep. Looking at the table when we first sat down, it was impressive, but still only about 2 deep. Little did I know that was just the start of the food! Once the tables were filled, dishes began pouring into the tent: beef in red sauce, fish, hot corn meal, hot corn bread, khachapuri, pork on skewers, roasted beef, eggplant dish, more bread, more fish, more everything! This was on top of all the food already on the table: plates of fruit, plates of vegetables, at least 3 or 4 cold salads, mushroom dishes, meat dishes, turkey, whole chickens, bread, candies, plates of different cakes, etc., etc.
I was astounded at the amount of food on the table. There was no notion of “the table is too full”. Oh no. You just pile it somewhere on top, however precarious the position may be. Georgians do not use what we think of as “dinner plates”. I have yet to see one. All food is eaten and served on little plates that are bigger than a saucer, but a bit smaller than American salad plates. So you have a little bit of this, than a little bit of than, oh I think I’ll try this, maybe I can fit a bit of that. Then you sit and digest for a few minutes and then you start all over again. I tried to try a bit of everything on the table, since many of the dishes were things that have never been served at my house.
Shortly after the feasting began, for that is the only appropriate word, the toasts began. Georgians have a very old and very strong tradition of toasting. Any get- together that involves food and drink, starting as small as a few friends and getting as large as weddings, is called a “supra”. A supra always has a tamada, who is the toast-master. Sort of a Master of Ceremonies. The tamada can lead the toast or call someone else to give it. When a toast is given, you are supposed to hold your glass up until the speaker is done and only then you drink. And you really should drink the whole glass. These are not like American wine glasses. They are little glass tumblers, probably about 6 ounces, but there was an awful lot of toasting going on. And this is, of course, all local wine, made last year from local grapes.
The toasting and drinking is generally proprietary to the men. Don’t get me started. None of the women were drinking at all to the point that I finally asked my English teacher if women drank at weddings. “Oh, do you want do?” she asked. “I don’t really want any.” I assured her that was fine and poured myself a glass. Don’t mind if I do. Of course I was the only woman as far the eye could see that was drinking. Whatever. I am a guest and therefore feel free to embrace a bit of an “I do what I want” attitude. Later on the German teacher and I had a few gamarjos, the Georgian “cheers”, between ourselves, but that was it as far as the women around me. I am sure other women were drinking somewhere, but nothing like on the level the men were drinking.
After feasting to the point where I could feast no more, there was not much to do. Toasting continued non-stop. There were even mandatory “two glass” toasts. Several of those. I began to get a bit bored and wondered what else happened at Georgian weddings. My backside was also most tired of the narrow benches we were sitting on. Toasts were interspersed with singing, which blared from the speakers at an unseemly volume. I was incredulous that no one else seemed bothered. My sound man father would roll over in the proverbial grave if he had been there.
Eventually dancing began and I perked up. I was very interested to see if any of the traditional dancing would be performed. There are several students at my school who study the dancing, but it does not seem that common. They danced and several other locals danced. Some very impressive dancing by men. They can do these incredible leaps and turns. The dancing is very martial in feel, lots of throwing your chest out, strong arms, and holding of invisible daggers at your waist. But it is very cool, least you think I am not impressed.
The traditional music was also varied with more “pop” type music which encouraged the general audience to participate. I even danced. Mostly because other teachers and my host sisters dragged me up. Yes, semi-astounded family and friends, I do enjoy dancing. I am just overly self-conscious about it. It helps to be in a sea of people who don’t know you. So I danced with my teachers, my neighbors, my family, strangers. Whatever. It was fun.
But the highlight of the night for me was most definitely when I was the recipient of a toast made in my honor. I had seen one of the teachers who I have pegged as “mischievous” going up to the tamada and talking to him. Most worrisome as I could think of no reason for her to do so, but I had a premonition it had to do with me. Sure enough, she came back and the English teacher told me that the tamada was now aware there was a foreign guest in their midst and he would be sure to do a toast for that. I was not amused. There were a lot of people there—hundreds—and I was most uncomfortable with the idea. I dealt with this information as best I could. Although nervous, I thought it was kind of cool. But nervous.
Of course we had no idea when this event was going to happen. I tried to look nonchalant, but did not really feel it. After awhile, I was over it. It would happen if it happened. Sure enough, it finally happened when I had almost forgotten about it. I was taking pictures when someone was like “Amy, they’re talking about you!” and I turned around. I got to my feet and walked to the front from which the tamada presides. Tsira, the English teacher, trailed me for which I was grateful. But then she left me! A huge sea of faces met my glance out. Another woman took the place of my translator as the tamada began speaking.
I, of course, had no idea what was going on. The tamada and then the bride’s father spoke for some time. I listened to my translator, mostly about how I was a guest and they were proud of the friendship between the United States and Georgia. I focused on paying attention to the image I was projecting. I wanted to look friendly, but strong. None of that blushing nonsense. They asked me if I would say a few words about my impressions of Georgia. The microphone was millimeters from my mouth before I could hesitate. I said that I liked Georgia very much, that the people were very hospitable. I thanked them for inviting me to celebrate with them and gave my congratulations to the happy couple. Translation followed.
Then the tamada was holding a glass of wine and I nervously reached for it, thinking it was my time to down a glass. Oh no. He was drinking a glass in my honor. He got down on one knee and drained the glass. A gallant gesture, I think. More speaking. Then after a dozen more gamarjos it was my turn. I wasn’t really sure when I was supposed to get to it, so I hesitated. Then my host mother, who had been at my elbow, was like “you aren’t going to drink?” That was the cue I was waiting for. So I drank my glass in one go, the Georgian way.
After that the evening took on a slightly Cinderella air. More dancing. More pictures. Someone insisted on giving me a Bible in English. Now I have 3 here in Georgia. I have explained to them that I am a Christian Protestant, but maybe they were not sure on the state of my soul. Whatever. I smiled and thanked them. We ate cake. Very good cake. Someone gave me one of the intricate sugar roses to eat. The bouquet was thrown. I did not catch it, but the little boy (?) who caught it, a student at my school, gave it to me later. When I insisted on leaving around 12:30, bemusedly thanking all the nice ladies who so extravagantly looked after me, I even felt a bit Cinderella-ish, though I was returning home in somewhat better condition.
Georgian wedding. A great experience. I can only hope I’ll be invited to another one.