Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Truth about Georgian Friendship

Georgians are known throughout the world (to those who know Georgia) for their incredibly warm and generous hospitality. 
This is accurate.
The longer I've been here, however, the more I question the authenticity of Georgian hospitality...

Many Georgians have expressed to me the sacred value of tradition, and the customs of hospitality are part of that tradition. Several Georgians have also expressed to me that this could be an incredible burden. 
People will brag to me about how limitless Georgian hospitality is, how it means that a man can call up his friend at 2 am and his wife will get out of bed and prepare tea and cake for the guests and they will share drinks. Then they will turn around and confess that this tradition is not something they would like to be on the wrong end of.

Georgian tradition says guests are gifts from God, thus, while Georgians will feed you heaps and charm the pants off you while making your life as a guest as happy and comfortable as possible- they won't necessarily like it. It can be an obligation.

This is where things can get complicated. It can be very hard to tell if a Georgian person is being genuinely friendly and genuinely likes you, or if it's just "being polite." Of course, being polite in America is basically a pinched smile and curt nods, maybe offering a glass of water, whereas in Georgia it can be as elaborate as a full feast and singing and dancing and drunken toasts to your yeah, it's not as easy to tell.

Friendship in Georgia is deep. Deeper than anything I've ever seen. It's a small country, and even in Tbilisi most people grow up in small, tight-knit communities. During the 90s when times were very tough (bread lines, neighbors pooling money to buy meat and sharing it in outdoor barbeques, no electricity or water), people bonded beyond blood. Brotherhood is a particularly stirring concept to behold. Friends will give everything for each other, will be there at a moment's notice, will sit outside on a bench for 4 hours just watching the neighborhood, just being together. 
Friends will die for each other. 

For an outsider, friendship is not easy to come by.

It is easy to think you are friends with someone, to think they care about you, to think they really like you. It's easy to get swept up in the poetic grandeur of this kind of friendship, to declare yourself ready to be that kind of friend to those who show you kindness and love and generosity- Georgian hospitality. Then, suddenly, amongst canceled plans and missed calls, when people are less than enthusiastic to help you with small things, when people who made toasts to your undying friendship slowly fade from your realize that you were never friends. 

This can be shocking, especially compared to the way friends are made in college in the States. The first year, and really all through school, people are actively searching for new friends. People may be mean on occasion, but they are more or less genuine. If you don't like someone, you don't talk to them and you each move on to different circles. If you do like someone, they easily become a "friend" within a few meetings. It's part of American culture, and part of university culture.

When you realize the way the Georgian system works, on the other hand, it's easy to feel used (especially if you were involved sexually/romantically), it's easy to feel cheated and lied to and stabbed in the back. 
But it's also necessary to keep in mind the way the system works. Georgian bonds of friendship have been formed over long periods of time, through suffering and survival, through shared experiences and understanding. You are an outsider.
I've heard rumors that it can be done, that the circle can be broken into, that a foreigner can become this mystic, unattainable thing- friend. But it takes time, it's not easy, and it's usually through marriage. 

My advice: take advantage of the positive things about Georgian hospitality, embrace the warmth and poetry, but don't kid yourself about what it means. 

I googled "brotherhood" in Georgian, and a good third of the pictures
are from the Russian 2002 gangster miniseries "Brigada"

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