Sword for enemies, wine for friends
“The Georgians love revelling. The one who is presiding over the meal –called the “tamada” – is the most important person at the traditional feast called supra. This person is responsible for raising glasses in a toast which may go on for some minutes up to half an hour. You cannot put your drinking horns away when they are full, so you have to drink up everything in one go”, says the volunteer. (phot. © VladimierShioshvili - flickr.com).
“When God was giving land to separate nations, there was an awful mess. Everyone wanted to get the best part of the globe. Only the Georgians waited patiently, playing, singing and revelling. When the globe was divided, it turned out that God had forgotten about the Georgians. However, their serene disposition pleased God so much, that he gave this nation the most beautiful place he intended to keep for himself. This was a paradise on earth, with fertile fields and picturesque mountains.” This legend speaks volumes about Georgia and its inhabitants. Małgorzata Goławska, inhabitant of Biała Podlaska, discovered the charms of that country during two months of voluntary work there.
When asked about her passions, she answers immediately: „Travelling.” Despite her young age she has already visited a number of European countries and seen the life of their inhabitants. Małgorzata is a student of Romance Languages at the Catholic University of Lublin, where she is active in the Romance and Italianist science clubs. She also belongs to the Lublin branch of the Viva Association dealing with the fight for humane animal treatment.
Some of Małgorzata’s trips were linked to her field of study. She lived and worked in Bergamo (Italy) for half a year under the Erasmus programme, she served three months of student placement in Sicily and worked as a volunteer in France. During last year’s holidays she was an au-pair in Switzerland. She also goes on tourist trips, mainly to France or Spain. Most of the places she has visited are located in West European countries, however, lately she has shown an interest in the East.
Having read a pile of books, having browsed through all available blogs and webpages about Georgia, Małgorzata decided to visit the country that fascinated her. Her voluntary service-related mobility was a perfect opportunity. This was possible thanks to European Voluntary Service under the “Youth in Action” programme.
Małgorzata was staying in the north-west part of the country, near the border with Abkhazia, not far from the locality of Zugdidi where she worked at a summer play centre for two months in July and August. Zugdidi, famous for a big number of refugees living in the suburbs, is a town with sixty thousand inhabitants. This is also the main transport hub for those who what to get to the mountains in the Sanetia region.
Together with other Georgian volunteers Małgorzata conducted classes for children from 8 to 15 years old. She taught English and Italian.
“Our classes went on for 4 hours a day. We tried to make them attractive. We wanted that studying at the summer play centre to be less formal than at school, we did not want it to be like studying from books. Therefore we prepared various games, film shows, discussions and even karaoke in English. The children showed a high level of involvement. Working with them was very agreeable. They kept cuddling up to me, taking snaps and teaching me Georgian. At the end they gave me lots of gifts: beautiful greetings cards and bracelets”, says Małgorzata and adds that the Georgians are very open to people, they easily establish contact and make friends.
From the perspective of many Poles, Georgia is still perceived as an exotic and underdeveloped country. “There are probably those who think that there is no water or electricity there. However, everything is there. People are afraid of Georgia because of the conflict with Abkhazia. My friends often tried to talk me out of this trip, asking: “Why are you going there?” But I did not encounter anything unpleasant there”, says the volunteer.
Already those at the airport seemed extremely nice and cheerful to her. “I remember that somebody kept making jokes all the time, somebody was laughing. Later on I witnessed similar situations. The Georgians are always in a good mood. I thought their life must be very pleasant”, she says. The volunteer found herds in the streets surprising. “When I travelled from the airport to the village for the first time I was shocked as the whole road was occupied by cows that were everywhere. The driver had to zigzag among them, stop and hoot the horn as it was impossible to pass otherwise”, says the student.
True village living
When in Georgia, Małgorzata was staying in a village in the house of her boss, owing to which she was able to observe and even participate in the everyday life of a typical Georgian family. “To the Georgians, the family comes before anything. It is the most important thing for them. Multigenerational households are something normal. Neighbours are often relatives. Families live close together and stick always together. If you are late for work or do not attend work because you are helping a family member, for example you are giving your auntie a lift to the doctor’s or shopping for your neighbour, nobody makes your life miserable because of that. Everybody understands that”, she says.
And then she adds: „Living with that family was a fantastic experience. If I had lived in Zugdidi with the other volunteers, I would not have had the chance to immerse myself in Georgian culture. We would have probably spoken nothing but English, whereas in this situation I had to learn Russian to be able to communicate with the family with which I was staying. Integration, for example with your neighbours, is much easier in villages. Village life is just more genuine than that in towns.”
The Georgians are famous for their hospitality in the whole world. Małgorzata was able to experience that the very first day, when the majority of those living in the neighbouring houses came to meet the new neighbour. “Everyone was excited as a Polish girl was going to stay in their village. The neighbours kept inviting me to their home, so I had to visit each one of them, one by one, eat something with each one of them and drink, of course. Then I saw my neighbours every day”, says the volunteer.
Also those met by chance are kind and hospitable. They are willing to help especially Poles for whom they have a liking, as Małgorzata says. “The Georgians always speak highly about Poles. Therefore I witnessed to fantastic reactions. Once I was invited to a birthday party and as a guest from Poland I was given the place of honour at the table. They drank toasts to me, Poland and the late President Kaczynski, to my family. That was very nice”, says Małgorzata.
Revelling the Georgian way
Revelling is one of the Georgians’ favourite activities. Their traditional feasts – called supra – are given very often. “The person presiding over the meal, called the “tamada”, is the most important person there. This person is responsible for toasts because you do not drink when you want to. The tamada raises his glass in a toast which can last from some minutes to half an hour. When the tamada speaks, everybody waits, listens, nods, smiles and calls in the end: “So let’s drink to…” It is interesting that when drinking a toast in Georgia nobody says “to your health” or “all the best”, but they say “to victory”. They drink from glasses, clay bowls or drinking horns, able to hold even two litres of wine. It is usually men that drink from them, but I also had to, as a guest. You have to keep on drinking from your drinking horn as it is impossible to put it away when it is full, so you have to drink all your wine in one go during a toast”, she says.
Traditional food is a significant element of Georgian feasts. „The most famous dishes are: khachapuri – a cheese pie, khinkali – dumplings looking like sacks, shish kebab, lobio – a dish made with beans and extremely popular eggplants, for example with nuts. In my region maize porridge is often eaten, which is white grits. Meat is served very rarely, only at meetings as it is quite expensive. New dishes are brought in all the time and they are placed one of top of the other. In this way they get piles of plates with yummy dishes”, says Małgorzata.
Religion, old wives’ tales and a method for longevity
The Georgian nation is very religious. As Orthodox Christians they link many aspects of their life to their faith. “The Georgians often fast. I remember that a religious festival was celebrated in August, preceded by two weeks of fasting, during which the Georgians abstained not only from eating meat, but also dairy products and honey”, says Małgorzata.
The way in which Georgian funerals are conducted, is very interesting. Georgian funerals go on for at least five days. “For some days the body of the deceased lies at home, in the main room, and all the neighbours and friends come every day to say goodbye and to show respect to the deceased. The funeral is a very important celebration. Some people say that it is even more important than the wedding. It is certainly more solemn and expensive, too”, says Małgorzata.
The Georgians’ religiousness does not prevent them from being superstitious. One evening, Małgorzata, completely enthralled by the number of stars in the sky, started counting them. Her friends told her to stop, as there is a superstition in Georgia that those who count the stars, are bound to get warts. Some other time, when she was wiping the table, she was told that she was not supposed to do it with a paper napkin as this may cause financial troubles. The Georgians know lots of similar superstitions and beliefs.
The inhabitants of Georgia lead a peaceful life, without unnecessary haste and stress. “They live long. They eat healthily: they eat lots of vegetables and little meat, they are often outdoors, they drink good water from mineral sources and their climate is quite mild. That is why they live to be one hundred. For example, my boss’s granny lived to be 115 and her father, now 84, looks not older than 60”, says the volunteer.
Patriotism versus ecology
“The Georgians are patriots. The country’s flags hang everywhere and people always rise when the national anthem is played. I remember once being late for classes at the summer play camp. The penance for this was for me to sing my national anthem. The same day another volunteer from Georgia was also late. As soon as she started singing the anthem, everybody got up and joined her in singing, even those who were in other rooms. This made quite an impression”, says the student.
The nation is involved in the State’s affairs, it is interested in politics, unfortunately, it lacks initiative for the country and mutual welfare. “I did not like that fact that the people theredid not concern themselves with ecology. There are heaps of rubbish in the woods, mountains and rivers. The Georgians explain this saying they are more interested in their homes, and what is behind the fence belongs to everybody and – in consequence – to nobody, so there is no need to show concern. It is a pity, because if things were different, Georgia would be the most beautiful country in the world”, she says.
Travelling the length and breadth of the country
Voluntary service is not just work and nothing else. There is also leisure time when everyone may do as they please. Małgorzata used this time to do sightseeing in Georgia. She visited all regions and the most attractive places. “I went to the seaside: to Kobuleti, to the famous health resort of Batumi, to the town of Ureki, known for its sandy beach with black and reportedly curative sand. I also visited Tbilisi. To me the capital is mainly a beautiful old town, baths and a massive underground railway system filled with the smell of sulphur as it is where its deposits are. Tbilisi is also proud of its stone monument of Mother Georgia, holding a sword and a bowl for wine, which translates as: “The sword for enemies, the wine for friends”. I was most impressed by Swanetia, a region in the mountains. It is here that you can find Europe’s highest inhabited village called Ushguli. The region is famous for its towers, which used to be inhabited in winter when the houses were covered in snow, but they also served as defensive features”, she says.
Most of the time Małgorzata travelled by train or routed taxicab, but sometimes she hitch-hiked. “When I wanted to go to Ushguli, I missed the coach. After a while a police car pulled off. Although the policemen were not travelling to Ushgui, they said they would accompany me there, because it was a Sunday, they had a day off and they had never been there. They took me to the place and then brought back. Moreover, other Poles had similar experiences. My friend travelled around as a hitch-hiker with the police. The police officers with whom she travelled, phoned other officers and in this way, after changing the means of transport several times, she arrived at her destination safe and sound. The Georgian police are great. I used their help quite often”, she says.
Planning more journeys
“My voluntary service in Georgia was very fruitful. I am extremely happy with the friendships and acquaintances that I made there. My being there, just like my other trips, helped me improve my linguistic skills, taught me independence, courage, stress-free attitude to life and optimism”, says Małgorzata, who is already planning more journeys.
Still in September she is going to Italy for three months and in January she intends to travel to Romania to serve a placement for students of pedagogics under the Comenius programme. “If you like travelling, you should get interested in foreign voluntary service or a placement. This is a fantastic opportunity to gain new experiences and get to know the world”.
This text by Magda Pawluk appeared in the Slowo Podlasia weekly.