Sunday, March 31, 2013


I realized much too late how weird my living situation was. Well before I first donned the teal racecar t-shirt of Orthodox Georgian shame, I'd invited a bunch of foreigners to my host household for an end-of-semester supra. Weird Beard, the Irishman, and a nice girl named Leslie - in a few short hours, they'd be caught up in the thick of it, surrounded by adoring villagers from a village not their own, drinking, drunk, drunken. Nobody in my host family had seen more than two non-Georgians in their lives. That night, they were to see four of them in action simultaneously.

In Georgia, a supra is a nominally formal occasion in which the men drink homemade wine and homemade vodka to elephantine excess while the women set the table, cook a twelve-course meal, collect dirty dishes, wash them, drink a toast or two while remaining sober and clear-headed and servile, for they must constantly empty ashtrays and bring new ones, fix coffee, make dessert, mop up vomit ... The men are expected to drink. Is it ever exhausting to be a man.

The men drink shots, shots of cha-cha, shots of wine. There is no savoring, no nursing, and there is no drinking alone. There is no drinking at all unless a toast is proposed, and all toasting runs through the tamada: essentially, the Stalin of the supra. He appoints the toaster and he nominates the toastees. You may politely ask the tamada for permission to stand up and propose a toast of your own, but you may never, ever, under any circumstances usurp the tamada's toast. I had quite a notorious reputation for doing so without meaning to - particularly after that fateful tenth toast of the evening - and for that reason, I became known far and wide as The Rogue Tamada of Samegrelo Province, one of many nicknames I was to acquire during my ten months in Georgia.

As the night escalates, shot glasses and wine glasses are put away and the horns come out. They are literal horns, the sort that cuckolds wear: hollowed-out cow horns, hollowed-out bull horns. These, usually, can be found dangling from the walls of any Georgian living room, regardless of whether there is drinking going on or not (and there usually is). The tamada starts with the small horns first, then moves up through his collection until, by the end of the night, you find yourself drinking out of a horn the size of your head, something that might well have belonged to a mythical or prehistoric beast. And you are expected to guzzle everything down at a single go. This is why I described the supra as a nominally formal occasion. Things always start out formally enough, but how would Emily Post have you projectile vomit all over someone else's living room floor?

I could sense the electricity in the house when I woke up on Supra Bowl Sunday - it was the only electricity we'd had all week - and by noon I was nearly blinded by the mischievous gleam in my host dad's eyes. My liver ached preemptively. I paced the house while my host dad lugged around ominous-looking plastic jugs and my host mom dusted under our feet. I felt the need to coach my host parents, the way you might coach your actual parents before bringing over your girlfriend for the first time. But of course, there was no point in worrying about anything: the Georgians would be Georgian, the Westerners would be Western, and my host mom would be my host mom, and I would be horrifically embarrassed at some point, and the night would get out of hand in the weirdest of ways. This was all beyond my control. There was nothing to do but pace around and hope that everyone else got drunk enough at the supra for me to steer the morning-after narrative in my favor.

Weird Beard was the first to show up, just shy of 4 PM. My host dad was already out on the piss somewhere else. The rest of the family gathered around on the porch to analyze (and psychoanalyze) Weird Beard in a language that neither he nor I quite understood.

"He's so handsome," said my host sister. "His beard is much better than your beard."
"Uh," said Weird Beard, "what did she say?"
"She said that you're handsome, and that your beard is better than my beard."
"Thanks," said Weird Beard.
"We want you to live here, not Kiti."
"They say that you should live here, not me."
"I like my host family a lot," said Weird Beard, "but thanks."
"Here," I said, tugging Weird Beard by the sleeve, "lemme show you my digs."
"Dang," he said, "how'd your Georgian get so good?"
"It's not," I said, "but if it is, it's because these people run my life."

My room was much the same as any other Georgian room, but that's not what Weird Beard had come to see. He wanted to see the shirt.

"Good God almighty. She makes you wear that?"
"I know, right?"
"Put it on for me."

Host dad came swaggering back home and summoned us menfolk to the living room. A Big Beautiful Babushka named Nino had showed up. A bottle of high octane cha-cha had appeared. The night had begun.

My host dad was tamada by default. He filled our shot glasses. He proposed a toast to mothers. I clinked glasses with him, with Weird Beard, with Nino. My host mom, meanwhile, was off scrubbing the toilet.

"Sheni deda, sheni deda, sheni deda," I said. "Your mother, your mother, your mother."

Weird Beard nudged me in the ribs.

"Dude," he said. "What the hell?"
"Do you have any idea what you just said?"
Nino's face had gone red. It looked like her eyes were about to pop out of her head and go flying across the living room. Finally, she could keep it in no longer. She busted up laughing.
"Kiti," she crowed. "Oh, Kiti! Sheni deda!"
She smacked the flat of her palm against the top of her balled-up fist, Georgian Sign Language for "fuck you."
"Seriously? Is that what I said?"
Weird Beard nodded.
"Huh. I had no idea," I said, "but I guess that makes sense. Yo mama. Same in English, no?"
We drank. Off to a good start.

There was a toast to international friendship. Obama, Saakashvili, megobrebi - gaumarjos! A toast to family. Ojakhis gaumarjos! A toast to the deceased.

"Gaumarjos!" I chimed.

Weird Beard nudged me in the ribs. They were starting to hurt, the ribs were.

"Dude," he said. "Think about what you just said."
"Dead people. Cheers!"
"Shit," I said.
"Nicely done."
"At this rate, I'm never going to get to be tamada."
"Give it a couple more toasts. You'll go rogue. I just know you will."

My host mom decided it was time for us to switch over to wine. So much the better, I figured. She snatched up the bottle of cha-cha, put it in a box and locked it away in a cupboard like it was the Lost Ark. My host dad left the room and returned with a couple Pepsi bottles full of wine. He filled our glasses. Then he proposed a toast to me. I raised my glass.

"To me, I guess."
"To Oaf Loaf," said Weird Beard.
"Kitis gaumarjos!" cried host dad.
We drank.
I glanced over at Weird Beard.
Weird Beard glanced over at me.
We sat there in silence for a minute or two while host dad topped us off.
"Hey," said Weird Beard. "Notice anything unusual about the wine?"
"Yes. You?"
"There isn't anything in it."
"You're right."
"It's grape juice."
"It is grape juice."
"You'd better call the Irishman," said Weird Beard.

"Yes, boyyyyy," said the Irishman. "What's the crack?"
"You still coming over?"
"Aye, reckon I'll be there in an heur, so I will."
"You might want to bring some party supplies."
"To a supra? Are ye mental?"
"The wine," I said. "It's grape juice."
"Aye, fer fook's sakes ... "

Pounding shot after shot of bootleg Welch's. Livers growing bored. Kidneys failing. One by one, the neighbors came tromping in. A digital camera was produced. Videos were taken of Weird Beard and I sitting around, self-conscious as all get-out. The Irishman arrived with a mysterious black bag that he stashed in my room. He sat down and chugged grape juice with us. It was immediately clear that nobody liked the Irishman.

My host sister pulled me aside.
"The Irishman is very bad," she said. "Very bad. He have a very bad character."
"He's been here ten minutes," I said.
"He is stupid and very bad."
"Fair enough."

My host mom mocked the Irishman's English, made a chipmunk face and went bwah-bwah-bwah-bwahhh. Weird Beard shook his head.
"Is your host mom making fun of the Irishman?"
"I believe she is."
"That's bullshit," he said. "Only we're allowed to make fun of the Irishman."

The Irishman had broken out in a sweat. He is a man who knows when he is unwelcome. He tried to ingratiate himself with the family the only way he knew how: by speaking lousy Georgian to my two year old host cousin.

"Batara bichi! Modi, modi!" he cooed. "Little boy! Come here!"
My host cousin shook his head, no. He wasn't going anywhere.
"Batara bichi!" scoffed my host mom later in the evening. "Your Irish friend is an idiot."

Leslie arrived and could immediately sense that things had gotten weirder than planned. Everyone marveled at her red hair. She had stolen the show and I could tell she wanted badly to leave. To her credit, she stayed until the bitter end. We knocked back grape juice, took frequent bathroom breaks, snuck off to the mysterious black bag for a nip or two, reconvened in the interrogation chamber for up-close videos and personal questions and mild humiliations of all sorts. It was nine PM at a Georgian supra and the four of us were stone sober. Under much host familial pressure, I finally caved and did a miserable breakdance routine on the living room floor. Thank God they got that on video. When I returned to the couch, Weird Beard was shaking his head with disgust.

"Enough is enough," he said. "Dinner's over. We've been polite. We've done our bit. Let's head into town and speak some English."
"You think we can pull it off?"
"I'll do the talking," he said. "Your host family actually likes me."
We looked over at the Irishman, who lowered his head.

Weird Beard got to work on my host dad, who was several sheets to the wind thanks to a secret stash that his best friend - a sixty year old geezer with the improbable name of Hooha - had smuggled in without sharing. My host dad agreed to summon a taxi. I went to my room, put on some cologne, took a little nip, ran into Weird Beard in the hallway.
"We're good," he said. "I made your dad promise not to tell your mom."
"Ten minutes. I'll give the signal."

It was very nearly the perfect crime. A cab pulled up in front of my house. My host mom was next door. The four of us bid the village adieu and piled into the cab.

"Tsalenjikha," said Weird Beard, "and step on it."
The cabby wouldn't budge. He was looking at something in his rear view mirror. Objects are closer than they appear, et cetera.
The back door shot open.
"Kiti! Where are you going?"
"Um," I said. "We. We are going. Going into town. Be back soon."
"Why? What's in town?"
"It was good," I said. "A good evening. Thank you for everything. But now. Together we will go. To town. Be back soon."
"They can go," she said. "You cannot go."
"But - "
"You cannot go."
"But - "
"But what?"
"But ... me katsi var," I squeaked. I am a man.
"You are going nowhere."
She grabbed my leg and started tugging.
"What the hell," I said.
"Drive," Weird Beard said to the cabby.
"Don't drive!" I shouted.
I was halfway out the door.
"Just go," said Weird Beard. "Now."
I could feel my shoe sliding off.
"Man up," Weird Beard said to me. "Say something!"
I could feel my leg sliding off.
"Mom," I said. "Mom."
She looked up.
"I'm 29 years old," I said. "I'm going into town with my friends."
"Okay," she said. "But you're in big trouble when you get back."
She slammed the door, very nearly on my leg.
"Are we ready?" asked the cabby. He was half-asleep by then.
I looked around and nodded.
"Yes. I do believe we're ready."

Unfortunately, no official minutes were kept for the night that followed. Our minds lapsed into time lapse mode. Weird Beard caught a cab home at some point. Leslie lived just down the road. The Irishman and I hiked eight kilometers in pitch darkness back to my house, ogled the constellations and waxed metaphysical along the way, slipped on cow patties times beyond number, got lost twice before realizing we weren't lost at all, finally slipped past the guard dog, tiptoed past my host mom's lair, and bolted ourselves in my room. We had a good laugh about it all and went to sleep. I woke up at eight the next morning.

"Jeesus," groaned the Irishman. "Where the fook am I?"
"My house," I said. I threw on my suit coat.
"What time is it?"
"What the fook are you doing?"
"Going to work," I said.
"How is that even fooking possible?"
"It just is," I said. "Get some sleep. I'll be back in a couple of hours. Want me to lock the door?"
The Irishman was already asleep.

An hour or so later, my host mom broke into my room to do God knows what. She found a half-naked Irishman in my bed. A certain scene from The Godfather springs to mind. My only regret is not having been there to witness it.

So there was that.

At any rate. Looks like I'm the only tamada left. So I'd like to use this final paragraph to propose a toast, if you don't mind. Here's to Georgia. Here's to America. Here's to David Bowie. Here's to The Wire. Here's to friendship. And here's to host mothers. Sheni dedas, gaumarjos!

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