Real talk for the intrepid traveler about visiting Georgia
Here are my off the cuff tips for visiting the nation of Georgia, written for a friend of a friend. My knowledge is a bit out of date, and I probably have a few details wrong, so take it all with a crumb of salty sulguni cheese!
I spent the summer in Georgia in 2001, and like so many visitors, totally fell in love with the country. I went back and lived there for nine months in 2005–6. You can see more of my writing about Georgia on my blog.
The most important thing is to meet people, strike up conversations, be curious, be open to accepting invitations. Hospitality and generosity are central elements of Georgian culture, in a way that’s honestly reminiscent of Burning Man. But in Tbilisi, it can take a bit of work and adjustment to get past the surface anonymity of the big city. (Big for Georgia, that is… the city center is only maybe half a million people).
If you are friendly and curious with people you meet, and tell everyone how much you want to experience Georgian culture, Georgian music, and Georgian food, you’ll open the door to invitations.
One central Georgian cultural experience is the “supra”, a celebratory dinner that’s filled with toasts and chatter and singing.
Of course, like so many cultural practices, it looks different from the inside than it does from the outside. We outsiders tend to treat it like a totally distinct, binary thing. But for people inside the culture, it’s just a fluid part of the way things work.
So most supras just happen organically when people get together to eat or drink, if the setting is right. (“Supra” just means “table”.) If people are eating and talking and someone keeps getting up and making toasts with a little mini speech first, it’s a supra.
The toastmaster is called a “tamada”, though again, it’s more of the name for the act, which anyone can step in and do, than a singular role that is only performed by one person. Traditionally, there are 12 toasts, to things like old and new friends, love, the dead, and children. So a very Georgian thing to do, that would be very welcome, when you’re in a supra-like environment, would be to stand up and hold a glass of wine or vodka (not beer though) and give a little 3 sentence speech and toast. Nothing fancy, just something from the heart, like “This is my first time in Georgia, and the first time meeting most of you, and I want to appreciate the welcome I’m getting, and promise that I will pass this on to others. To welcoming people from far away!” Then drain your glass to really represent.
Georgians certainly drink a lot, but it’s not a college-style binge drinking culture. You’ll smell alcohol on people’s breath (including, terrifyingly, cab drivers), but it’s uncommon for people to be really wasted. Part of this is because Georgians tend to eat while they drink, which slows down the drinking and alcohol digestion. Another part is just that Georgians know how to handle their business, take it easy and keep their cool.
Georgian cheese bread, called khachapuri (khah-chah-poo-ree, notes on the pronunciation of Georgian letters are below), is a daily food that is present at most traditional meals, like baguettes for the French.
If you’re into trying new foods, you should seek out the various regional varieties of khachapuri, all of which can be found in Tbilisi. Different bakeries and restaurants in specialize in different regional dishes, especially khachapuri, so ask around.
“Acharuli” khachapuri is from the Achara region in southwest Georgia (it’s usually written in English as “Adjaria”), and it has a half cooked egg on top that finishes frying in the hot cheese, phenomenal when done well. “Penovani” khachapuri is cooked in a phyllo dough. The most common variety is “Imeruli” khachapuri, from the Western Imereti region, which resembles a pizza slice with no tomato sauce.
Georgian food has a combination of middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Russian influences, as well as totally unique dishes that grow out of its unique landscape, fauna and flora. The distinctive cheese on khachapuri, for example, is usually sulguni cheese, which is made from the milk of stocky mini-cows that live only on the mountains of Georgia. There is a lot of pomegranate, walnut and plum.
Be sure to try tqemali (sour plum sauce), satsivi (walnut sauce), mchwadi (aka shashlik, in Russian), chkmeruli chicken, and chicken/meat cooked with any of a variety of fruits and nuts, especially pomegranate. Other good dishes are lobiani beans and cooked mushrooms (I forget what these are called in Georgian).
Try the street snack called churchkhela, made from nuts, flour and grapes. (They’re the ones that you’ll really, really think are candles!)
Georgian winemaking goes back to prehistorical times, and if there’s anywhere else that made wine first, you won’t get far trying to convince Georgians of that.
The art of winemaking never became the focus of national fussiness to the degree that it did in western Europe, and the ground is so universally fertile that there was never much need to study terroir in order to coax wine-ready grapes from the Earth.
Thus Georgian wine is less like a fine Chateauneuf-du-pape and more like what’s often called a “table wine” — tasty and drinkable, meant as a facilitator for food and loosening tongues, not meant to be focused on in and of itself.
That said, many Georgians (perhaps most) outside the city make their own wines, and there is something magical about drinking homemade wine with its maker. Homemade wines can be bought at the main Tbilisi “basroba” market, or at the “wine market”, a parking lot where winemakers gather, sell wine siphoned from gasoline canisters (a perfectly useful vessel), and shoot the breeze.
The Georgian language
In general, because Georgia is so small, Georgians know the country isn’t well known, and they appreciate travelers being curious about Georgia and learning even a little bit of the culture and language. Pretty much everyone under 30 speaks some English, but if you try a few Georgian words and phrases, they’ll go a long way.
Georgian is a unique language in many ways. It is not an Indo-European language, and the vocabulary and script is completely unfamiliar to outsiders. Even if you don’t have time to memorize them, do try to look at the alphabet and the word sounds online or in a guidebook — the script is fun and bizarre.
“Georgia” in Georgian is “Sakartvelo”, the land of the Kartveli people, and the language is called “Kartuli”.
Pronunciation is very similar to Spanish: every Georgian letter is pronounced consistently, and emphasis is mostly even across syllables, with a little extra emphasis sometimes put on the second to last syllable.
As in Russian, the letter ‘v’ is often sounded as a ‘w’ when it would ease the flow of the word. Eg., try saying the Russian last name “Petrovich” fast, and don’t forget to roll the ‘r’. See how your mouth naturally wants to skip fully sounding the ‘v’?
You roll r’s as in Spanish, and vowels are pronounced pretty much the same: ‘a’ and ‘e’ are soft (like in “España”, but the ‘e’ can be somewhat hard as in “feliz”), but ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’ are hard (as in “gusto” and “limpio”).
Unfortunately, many Georgian letters are tricky! “kh” means you make a choking k, like in Hebrew. “ts” (as in, “its”) and “zh” (as in “treasure”) are single letters in Georgian, and they can start a word.
Ask Georgians to help you learn to say the word “baqaqi”, “frog” in Georgian, for a good example.
Another good word to help you hear the language better is “chika”, “glass”; the ch is aspirated with a sharp exhale, but the k is soft and gentle.
Words can also have multiple consonants in a row. “Cakes” translates to the word “namtskhvrebi”! The river that runs through Tbilisi is called the “Mtkvari” (with the ‘v’ making that ‘w’ sound), and of course even the name “Tbilisi” eludes most foreigners. Don’t say “Tablisi”! Try saying “At Bilisi”, then removing the ‘a’. If you’re saying it right, it’ll sound like 3.1 syllables.
The verb generally goes at the end of the sentence.
- “Bodishit, Kartuli ar vitsi.” == Sorry, Georgian not [I speak]
- “Ingliusuri vitsi.” == English [I speak]
- “Ukatsravad, Ingliusuri itsit?” == Excuse, English [you speak]?
- “Tu sheidsleba” == If [please you]
- “Es ra ghirs?” == This what costs? (Aka, how much does this cost?). The “gh” is close to the guttural sound of an ‘r’ is in French.
- “Gaumarjos!” == Victory! (Aka, cheers!)
- “Kargia!” == Good is! (That is, it’s good, or this is good) This is short for “kargi aris”; ‘aris’ is a conjugation of the verb ‘to be’
- “Tuvaleti sad aris?” == Toilet where is? (Where is the bathroom?)
- You can politely call men you’re asking questions of “Botono” (sir), and women “Kalbotono” (madam). “Ukatsravad, kalbotono, es ra ghirs?”
Check out a YouTube video of how to count to ten.
Random things to try to do, if you can
- Take any day trip a Georgian invites you on. Try asking people if they know any good day trips. If you get lucky, a Georgian might invite you on one. Near Tbilisi there is the old capital with some thousand year old churches, and an isolated monastery you can go near and look out upon.
- Take longer trips as well, if you have time! The Black Sea coast is gorgeous, the wine country of Kakheti in the east is beautiful, and there are tall mountains quite close to Tbilisi (in Gudauri) which have skiable snow for much of the year, and breathtaking views. In Georgia’s many small villages, any newcomer is a novelty, and a bit of warmth, gesturing and broken Georgian is often enough to lead to an invitation to come try a villager’s homemade wine. Also, everywhere you go there are tiny, old churches; often you aren’t far from a church that’s more than 500 years old, which is still in active use and drawing local singers (see next bullet point).
- Visit a church where people sing informally. Georgian religious singing resembles chant but is polyphonic, and the more amateur the singers, the better. Sometimes you can get tipsy Georgian men to sing together impromptu. It’s beautiful.
- John Graham leads wonderful tours of Georgia that usually focus on its churches and polyphonic singing culture.
- Hear a Georgian folk singer strum the guitar and sing in Georgian at a bar at night. I’ve sometimes heard this called “Tbilisi city music”, but I’m not sure that’s right.
- Ask people which bakeries have really good khachapuri, and bread in general. The daily bread is fantastic, and breakfast can just be some sulguni cheese and fresh bread.
- Go to Tbilisi’s grand bazaar, “basroba”, with endless varieties of produce and objects and tinkering, with lots of old people who give you a sense of the old, tiny village countryside.
- See how many Chinese-style soup dumplings you can eat at “Khinkal Sakhli”, “Khinkal [dumplings] house”. Georgians think of these as totally Georgian, but obviously they’re an import from East Asia via the Silk Road.
A bit of orientation about the dating and hookup scene… My personal knowledge is way out of date, but generally speaking, it’s a more conservative culture sexually than urban Russia and Eastern Europe. Until recently, premarital sex was totally taboo, and there’s still a big, destructive cultural pattern around the insistent macho man and the pious virginal maiden. It’s several decades behind the US and Western Europe in fully acknowledging date rape as criminal assault.
There are also many popular misconceptions about sex, like the idea that it’s unnatural for a woman to enjoy getting oral sex, or absolute certainty that every man knows 100% of the time if a woman he’s having sex with is a virgin.
This has been changing, but Tbilisi is still nothing like, say, Tallinn or Kiev in its club/bar culture. (One American I knew in Tbilisi used to take a trip once a year to Eastern Europe just to experience this difference.)
Freedom and policing
Georgia is a fairly typical transitional state, where you can expect some level of surface professionalism from most police and guards, but there is also plenty of bribery and arbitrary state violence. So you probably want to avoid getting caught smoking a joint outside a club, say.
There’s also a small amount of organized (and semi-organized) crime, so you also want to be very apologetic to the 300 lb. scarred dude you bump into on the dancefloor.
The flip side of this is that some of the most important intensely defensive tough guys are also very generous, passionate and affectionate. There are tons of stories of this, like rival crews attacking each other and then stopping and agreeing to be brothers and drinking and singing all night. Or, muggers taking pity on a poor victim and giving the would be victim money. After you bump into the 300 lb. scarred dude, if you send his table a bottle of something, and ask about his passions, you might end up best friends.
There is some petty street crime, as in most big cities in the world outside of Western Europe, and it makes a difference if you know how to be street smart, maintain awareness of your surroundings, not attract too much attention in shadowy, lonely neighborhoods late at night, etc. My Georgian friends assure me that street crime has declined significantly, even below its previously low levels.
Georgia is incredible, and a huge number of the people who visit fall in love with the country and Georgians (both collectively and romantically!). If you give a lot, you’ll get a lot. Go!