If you are going to be in Georgia for any length of time, it would be a crime to miss out on the most quintessential Georgian experience, the supra. The Georgians take their eating seriously, and they take their celebrating even more seriously. They will find any reason to celebrate, and when they do, you had better be prepared for a long night full of drink, food, and endless toasts. It is guaranteed to be the most rewarding experience of your whole Georgia trip.
Now, there are two main ways to experience a supra. The first is the easy way, by going to one of the "traditional" Georgian restaurants set up for tourists, and the hosts will organize a supra for you, complete with all the necessary toasts. This way will undoubtedly be a good time and a good introduction to Georgian culture, but it won’t be anything compared to the real thing, and that is why I recommend the second way--to befriend a Georgian.
Now, every country in the world always talks about how hospitable their people are, but the Georgians really mean it. Just as the statue of Mother Georgia holds out a challis of wine to welcome visitors, so do Georgians go out of their way to give you the best time you can possibly imagine. Befriending a local is something you hardly even have to try at. Sitting at a café, on the bus, or in a restaurant, you are sure to eventually be approached by someone willing to make friends, and when you do, be prepared, because your whole Georgian experience will change. I, on the other hand, had a connection in Georgia--a friend of a friend in Tbilisi who I met up with a few days after I got to Georgia. His name was Roini, and this was our supra:
After a dinner at which Alexo the electrician bought us vodka and insisted we call him the case of an electrical emergency, my travel buddy and I were on our way to Republic Square when my phone rang, and it was Roini, my Georgian contact. Without explaining, he told me to find a taxi and to give the phone to the cabbie--we were going to meet him, he insisted. I watched as the cabbie nodded his head, recalling direction, and soon the taxi was wending its way through the streets of Tbilisi until we ended up on the highway out of town. My friend and I watched as the city of Tbilisi disappeared behind us. We had absolutely no idea where we were going and just put our faith in Roi and the cabbie. Eventually we pulled into a large banquet hall complex. The cabbie motioned that this was it. We paid and went in.
Entering into the hall, we found a good 10 tables full of Georgians, all there to celebrate different events. The tables were piled with food and jugs of wine, and a band was playing selections of Georgian music. Roi soon found us and dragged us over to his table, a long banquet table packed with Georgian twenty-somethings like himself. He proceeded to explain our presence to his friends and then introduced us one by one. Everyone let up a cheer and invited us to sit down.
Within minutes of sitting down, we had piles of food shoved in front of us, and our highball glasses were filled with a brown liquid about the color of apple juice that we discovered was some Georgian wine. We tried to explain that we had just eaten, but that excuse didn’t fly, so my friend and I were forced to comply. The food was, of course, fantastic, but when I went to grab some wine, Roi stopped me. "You can’t drink until a toast is made!"
Roi soon explained that everyone was here to celebrate his friend’s birthday and that we were about to experience the traditional supra. The way a supra works, Roi explained, is that at each supra, there is what the Georgians call a tamada. The tamada--in this case, the birthday girl’s brother--is the toastmaster. He is the one in charge of controlling the pace of the meal and, by proxy, the pace of everyone’s drinking. Georgian toasts are not like the ones you will find at weddings in the U.S. Pulling out a prepared speech and reading off a piece of paper would be an unforgivable crime. In Georgia, toasts must be spontaneous and from the heart. A few minutes after our arrival, the tamada stood up and toasted to us. He went on for a couple of minutes about the value of friendship, making new friends, and the importance of meeting people from other places. When he finished, everyone cheered, and I got prepared to drink my large glass of wine, but Roi stopped me.
In addition to the tamada, Georgian supras feature what the Georgians call an alaverdi. The alaverdi (in this case, Roi) has the responsibility of elaborating on whatever toast the tamada has just made. The alaverdi is named after Georgia’s second holiest church, Alaverdi (meaning "God gave" in Turkish), and in this case, Roi elaborated for a few minutes on the value of cultural exchange. When he finished, everyone cheered again, and then he gave a nod, indicating it was time to drink. As I lifted the glass to my lips, Roi looked at me and said, smiling, "Make sure to drink it all!" And I did, to the delight of all.
The supra continued in that fashion--a toast by the tamada, elaborated by the alavedi, and then a glass of wine. The toasts ranged from toasts about God to toasts blessing grandparents. Eventually it came time for the guests to toast, which I did to the best of my ability, with Roi translating. My toast about the joys of birthdays seemed to be a hit, and after a few more glasses of wine, the music picked up, and Roi looked at me and said, "It’s time to dance!"
Dancing is another integral part of the supra. The way it works is that the men get up and ask whomever they want to dance, and the women don’t refuse. You can ask whomever you want, even if they are married, because the dance is considered something of friendship only. It’s a celebration. So getting over my initial trepidations with a few more gulps of liquid courage, I walked up to one of Roi’s friends and asked for a dance. "Don’t ask her!" Roi shouted, "She’s pregnant!" Embarrassed, I moved on to another girl, the birthday girl, and had my dance. Eventually the number of dance partners increased, and soon we were over at neighboring tables, asking complete strangers to dance, and each time, we were received with sincere warmth and love. The people at the new tables would toast to us, drink, and then we would toast to them. And on and on it went. Dance, toast, drink, eat until 3am, when the band started to pack up, signaling the night had ended. We thanked Roi and the others for a fantastic time and shared one last toast, completing perhaps one of the greatest nights in all my years of travel.
And that is the supra. You can’t say you have seen Georgia until you experience one.
Sadly, the event was so spontaneous that I didn't have a camera handy, so no pictures are available. Sorry.