Saturday, June 11, 2011

English toast

So, the birthday suphra.

I anticipated that it would be one of the best that I have been to; I was not disappointed. I think that Zanavi Village will never be the same -- nor do I think there have ever been so many foreign guests there at the same time.

Zanavi countryside
Zanavi is a tiny village (smaller than Shamgona, I think) that sits perched on the side of a mountain in the southern part of Georgia, close to the Turkish border -- where my friend James has been living and teaching for the year. And, for his birthday yesterday, there was, of course, a suphra which I would not have missed for the world.

I left Tea's house at 7:45 a.m. on the first marshutka out of Shamgona. In Zugdidi, I hopped the bus to Tbilisi, got off in Khasuri, found a marshutka on its way to Akhaltsikhe, then got the last marshutka to Adigeni where I called James and was directed to the dirt road that would lead me up the mountain to his host-house. It was about 5 p.m. when I headed up the road, iridescent purple umbrella raised to shield me from the blazing sun. By 5:45, I was greeting James on the balcony and being ushered into the main room to greet my friends and meet James' host family. Katherine and Maria were there -- our Belgian friend, Mattias who we met in Kazbegi was there along with James' host family and some extended family. I put down my backpack and joined the suphra, already in full swing.

After an hour of eating and drinking, we took an hour pause in the festivities for James and Katherine to go down the mountain to pick up the last guest for the weekend, Katherine's hostess in Tbilisi who also made the trip out for the celebration. In the meantime, I meandered around outside, shooting photos of the beautiful countryside and picking wildflowers for James' host "mom."

Once we were all gathered anew, the tenor of the party changed. It felt more relaxed. I don't know if that was because the rest of the relatives had left so all the toasts were now given in English, or that the immediate family (the women) had finished serving so they were able to sit with us and enjoy the rest of the night. Regardless of the reason, it was very nice.

As Georgian as the birthday suphra was, there was something unique about it -- at least, compared with any of the other suphras I have been to. The main difference was the toasts.

Toasting is what makes a Georgian suphra, a Georgian suphra. There are rules to toasting regarding the order, who gives them, when each person speaks, what must be in the glass with which one is toasting, and how much should be drunk. I've become accustomed to the rules, and I know which ones can be broken without offending anyone. Since I have figured that out, I have enjoyed being at suphras (I really disliked them before my revelation). But none so much as last night's. I was trying to figure out what it was that I liked so much -- and finally I realized what was so special about this one: the toasts (most of them) were given in English.

Men usually give the toasts, and I had not been to a suphra with an English-speaking man as "tamada" (toastmaster). So when the toasts are given at those suphras, I either glean what little I can from my Georgian knowledge or ask Lika or Tea what was said. It's always the same translation, "This person wishes whomever the best in everything -- health and happiness and success and long life...." Bland, generic, and vanilla. No poetic, flowery language. No heartfelt words of affirmation.

But, toasting in English to those who have become near and dear to me is quite another thing. James' host speaks English well, as does Katherine's hostess, so the two Georgians who were involved in the toasting (once the extended family had left) switched to giving their toasts in English. For me, it changed everything about toasting. It made it meaningful and pertinent. Sometimes it was difficult to think of something meaningful to say, but since we all participated in each round of toasts, we could play off of each other's words, echoing the sentiment, or building on what the previous person said. It was a wonderful time to tell each other how much we all mean to each other.

No wonder the Georgians have kept this tradition for centuries.... maybe for millennia.

In American culture, we don't often tell each other why we love, respect, and admire each other. We don't express our feelings about and connection to things like family, school, country, history, culture, or God. But when surrounded by people who can share (in a common language) their thoughts on the meaning of life and each other, hearts are filled and spirits are refreshed.

I think that we all felt that way last night. I sure did.

At the suphra-table -- James' hosts, Kate, James, Mattias, and Kate's hostess


  1. I am very proud of you! Keep it up!
    And also I want to say that your positive approach to life really inspires me.
    Good job!

  2. that last paragraph is a powerful revelation. thank you. I want to begin to take steps to change that. Hopefully I can find ways to bring "suphra moments" into my life....with or without a toast of wine.

  3. "It's always the same translation, "This person wishes whomever the best in everything -- health and happiness and success and long life...." Bland, generic, and vanilla. No poetic, flowery language. No heartfelt words of affirmation."

    To be fair it's hard to translate for all the obvious reasons, so the translator might be boiling it down for you. Let’s remember the level of English the translator has also. To be flowery once has to have mastered English. Moreover, we don't speak Georgian so we have no idea if it's 'flowery' or 'poetic'.

  4. Anonymous, thanks for the comment. However, I have heard enough toasts in Georgian to know when it is and is not poetic, and my two main translators speak English well enough to translate anything from basic to flowery. To be fair, there have been a few times when the toasts given in Georgian have been unique and poetic -- and have brought tears of humility and gratitude to my eyes (I've mentioned a couple of those instances in previous posts.) But, for the most part, they are general, run-of-the-mill toasts. But that was not the point of my post. My point is that in one's own language, we can express our feelings in a much deeper way, and I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to do so.

  5. Thank you so much for your description of James' birthday suphra!

    We've been following your blog since November, and we both look forward to reading your posts every day. We love your work: it's always fresh and interesting; often colorful, descriptive and introspective; and sometimes made us laugh out loud. And your photos are fantastic -- thanks for giving James a few tips and showing by example.

    We were hoping you would write about James' birthday event, and so we were particularly eagerly to read your June 10th post. We weren't disappointed; your post had it all: great description, photos, and your particularly insightful observations on human nature.

    So in the spirit of a Georgian toast, we want to let you know how much we've enjoyed reading your every word over the past seven months. We hope you continue writing, where ever life takes you next, and we wish you all the best as you embark on your next adventures.

    -- James' Mom and Dad