This past weekend has been one of the stranger ones. I never expected to have such a full social calendar here, but suddenly I find my self busier than I’ve been in quite a while. And since I am in Georgia, it’s been less of a schedule and more of a series of last-minute events that pop up coincidentally.
We knew about Saturday’s wedding a week or so in advance. The bride, a TLG volunteer who has been here for a year already, was marrying a local, and the whole event was planned less than a month in advance. In America, such a hasty ceremony has certain implications, but here it’s quite normal. I’ve even been told that surprise weddings aren’t uncommon. Yes, you read that correctly: surprise weddings.
Though I can’t even begin to imagine how I would feel if someone surprised me with a wedding, this should give you a sense of how things are handled here. I’m still gathering material for a post on gender roles, so we’ll save that for another time.
For the church ceremony we drove to Alaverdi, a stunning monastery complex not far from Telavi, where locals were celebrating Alaverdoba, the yearly festival honoring the church itself. Approaching the compound, the road was lined with tall trees and hundreds of picnic-ers, spread out in groups sharing the harvest under cloudless skies. Roasting lamb mixed perfectly with ripe grapes and the dry wind, carrying the sounds and smells of Alaverdoba with us into the walled churchyard.
Because of the holiday, there were many visitors not connected to the wedding. Luckily, I managed to grab one of the last polyester wraparound skirts available for women who don’t already have their knees covered. By the time we were leaving, a small crowd of women wearing shorter skirts or trousers was waiting to snap up the skirts of those who were on their way out. I’m not exactly sure whether to interpret this as a shifting attitudes toward modern dress, or simply a holiday rush.
If you’ve never visited an Orthodox church, it’s quite a different place than Catholic or Protestant churches in the west. There is no seating, as churchgoers here stand during services, spending time at icons placed throughout the sanctuary. Though some churches are quite modest, many, reflecting the importance of giving your best to God, are massive domed structures, filled with beautiful golden icons, relics, and candelabra. Unfortunately, many of the paintings on walls suffered at the hands of conquerors, most recently the Russians. But you can still hear the chants and feel the warmth of beeswax candles illuminating fragments of images on the once colorful walls.
During our visit, the priest married two couples, in the presence of their chosen witnesses and random tourists. The ritual seemed much like weddings I’ve seen in America, with slightly less pomp and more crowns. It was quicker than I expected, but the real surprises started after we left. Pictures are theoretically not allowed inside Alaverdi, so I abstained.
Our caravan left the monastery, the driver unsure of the next destination, as the reception was set for several hours (which might as well be years, in Georgian time) into the future. To pass time, perhaps, we went to visit churches where the newlyweds were meant to light candles. It’s often difficult for foreigners here to distinguish tradition from happenstance, and in this regard I am no exception. Thankfully, this confusion often extends to locals as well, and it is nice to have company when you haven’t a clue what’s going on.
The take-away from this brief adventure, however, is that in Georgia the main attraction is sometimes a few hundred meters beyond a “no entry” sign. Eventually, we found our way to a restaurant for the secular portion of the day.
I was very excited for my first supra, something I’ve been looking forward to for years now. The supra is one of the central traditions of Georgian life, a feast in celebration of some significant holiday or occasion. Though I’m sure there are many variations throughout Georgia, they follow a certain program, beginning and ending with more wine, food, and music than you might think possible.
The rules are quite complex, but the supra centers on the tamada, or toastmaster, and his toasts. Like many things here, this role is only given to men, who must drink full bowls of wine when the tamada makes an important toast. Meanwhile, the table is full to overflowing, at this supra there were actually two or three stacked layers of serving dishes, as there was not enough space on the tabletop accommodate the surreal amount of food. Pitchers of wine dotted the landscape of meat and breads, waiting to fill the drinking-bowl at the head of the table. Though wine here is divided into black and white varieties, the actual shades tend to fit somewhere in the middle. Had I not known what to expect, I might have mistaken the white here for iced tea.
As guests and food arrived the tables, we divided, as is typical here, into one long table of older men, and one long table of everyone else. We settled in, greeting friends and neighbors, and toasting began. At the beginning, Mike, our trusty Georgian translator, made sure we understood what we were toasting to. After honoring the newlyweds, their parents, grandparents, future children, and women in general, our translator became slightly less reliable. I can hardly fault him for this; if I were expected to finish my cup of wine at each toast, my attention span would quickly decline. As a woman, however, it more appropriate to sip and remain seated as men pay respect to the bride and groom, standing to prove their loyalty glass after glass.
At some point, each toast became a remarkable piece of performance art, accompanied by literal chest thumping and that particular kind of sign language used only by politicians and the intoxicated. I heard some cognate of the word for Georgia countless times as our theme slid slowly toward the slippery slope of drunken patriotism. Not a moment to soon, the band arrived.
When I say band, I actually mean some hybrid of DJ and man-with-a-karaoke-machine, but music brought with it a much needed second wind for those of us unaccustomed to portions fit for a carnivorous elephant. The remainder of the evening followed the universally fuzzy timeline of the later hours in any day-long celebration, as we enjoyed the last of our time here, looking across the now-dark valley between our party and the mountains that have defined and defended these traditions for thousands of years. Dancing to songs both local and foreign brought us all together after our segregated mealtime, as Russian wedding music levels even the rockiest of playing fields. There is, in my opinion, no better music to dance poorly to.
Even as we left the restaurant, our destination was unclear, and though I expected for a moment that we might finish our tour of nearby churches, the taxi took us swiftly back to town, dropping me off very near my building. A quick climb to the fourth floor and I was home, to the familiar walls and windows of my host family’s apartment, quite ready to rest after a very unusual day.