On the final day of my two-week visit to the Republic of Georgia, the air was clean and the heat was prickly. Davit Georgashvili, who I had met during my time spent in capital city Tbilisi, was driving a group of us travelling as part of an NGO partnership along the country’s main highway back to his home city of Gori. Gradually, the densely-packed streets of the capital, with their medieval churches and clifftop stone houses, fell away in our wake, replaced by overgrown fields and the occasional rusting train track.
As we passed crumbling former Soviet guard posts, Georgashvili pointed to a series of black shadowy buildings in the distance and said, “That’s South Ossetia.” Those two words alone, ‘South’ and ‘Ossetia’, were enough to bring to mind hazy images of war and Russian tanks rolling over the border that I could recall from BBC News broadcasts in August 2008.
We passed a shantytown of breeze-block huts laid out in neat rows that seemed to span for at least 1.5km. Georgashvili told me that this was a refugee camp where tens of thousands of South Ossetians who had allied with the Georgians during the war had fled. “The camp is one Europe’s largest permanent refugee camps,” he said.
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Eventually we drove into Gori, which is significantly more architecturally Soviet in style than Tbilisi, and were greeted by a huge poster of Stalin staring down at us from the side of a residential tower block. Georgashvili told us that the people of Gori, the birthplace of the divisive former Soviet ruler, are sympathetic towards Stalin because he invested heavily in the city, but not so much towards Russia. As Gori is located so close to the restive South Ossetia region, whose independence is supported by Russia, the city often suffers the consequences of Russian interference, including the gradual land grabs into Georgia that the Russian army undertakes each year.
We pulled up beside an unpaved earthen road lined with two-storey wooden houses, most with rotten walls covered in ivy and plant roots. Georgashvili pushed open a creaking door and led us down an alley into a courtyard with patches of grass growing through cracks in the dry mud, and into a ground-floor flat. He told us, “This is my family home where I lived when I was young.” His father was watching Russian TV and his mother was setting the table in the dining room with her finest plates and immaculately shiny cutlery. I really didn’t know what to expect as this was my first time in a Georgian home.
I was led into the dining room as Georgashvili’s mother was placing a huge cake in the middle of the table; she then took a jar of soft brown objects floating in what appeared to be a thin syrup out of a locked cupboard. Georgashvili explained, “The cake is walnut with walnut cream, and the jar is filled with walnuts that mum has been saving for years for a special occasion. We don’t get many foreign visitors.”
I felt guilty eating something that the family, who probably didn’t have much disposable income, had saved for so long. Yet, despite being one of the poorest states in Europe, and facing constant threats of invasion from Russia since independence from the USSR in 1991, Georgian families are more than happy to share what little they have with visitors. If anything, Georgians seem more open to outsiders likely because of a historical precedent: Georgia was an important branch off the ancient Silk Road between the 7th and 14th Centuries, so welcoming strangers – such as weary travellers – into their homes is deeply embedded into their culture.
After slowly savouring our sweet walnuts and cake, a rather portly man, who I later found out was a cousin, arrived with a big bag full of assorted meats and long Georgian cucumbers, which was once the food of peasants and is now considered a staple of the Georgian diet. According to Georgashvili, the family was organising a barbeque in a nearby forest for us, their honoured guests – a tradition that harks back to medieval times when multiple allied villages would gather in the forests for special occasions, largely because the countryside was the dividing point between settlements.
Because Georgia and Britain are allied against Russia, I would always be welcomed as part of their extended family.
Communal barbequing is probably as old as Georgia itself. Meat has always been plentiful due to the many farms that surround Gori and have passed through the same families for generations, and the custom of cooking on an open fire as a group is a way to bring families and friends together and share the food preparation responsibilities.
Georgashvili explained that Georgian culture values togetherness to ensure that bonds between family and friends remain strong across the generations. Traditionally, since at least the 12th Century BC when the Georgian tribal union of Diauehi first appeared in written history, Georgians have lived in villages with their extended families, sometimes with up to four generations under the same roof. Even today, Georgians are very community orientated, and are not afraid to welcome guests – particularly westerners – with open arms, despite decades of living in fear from Russian invasion. One elderly family member told me that because Georgia and Britain (where I’m from) are allied against Russia, I would always be welcomed as part of their extended family.
Our group climbed into the car with the cousin and drove along uneven earthen tracks for around 30 minutes until we reached a makeshift car park. The cousin led us to an unassuming wooden bench in the middle of a clearing next to a fire pit piled with chopped wood. He dropped a lit match on the wood, which came to life with a huge flame, and then opened a plastic crate lined with Coca Cola bottles filled with plum wine, a cheap and simple drink Georgians have brewed for millennia due to the region’s abundance of plum trees. He said, in broken English, “I made this myself. I mixed the ingredients in a bathtub and left [it] for two months. You can take some bottles back to England with you.”
Though the thought of trying to explain this 30% proof liquid at London airport customs filled me with dread, I put aside my worry in favour of enjoying the moment. The cousin took some meat from his bag and threw it onto the burning cinders to cook. As smells of smoke and melting fat circled around us, Georgashvili and his mother and father arrived with a bunch of other friends and family members, totalling somewhere in the realm of 40 people.
The once empty field quickly filled with chatter and laughter. The men gathered around the flickering fire, and the women sat around the bench singing traditional Georgian folk songs. I didn’t understand many of the lyrics, but the few translations I received suggested that the songs were about respecting family and friends, and coming together to overcome hardship.
When we all sat down to tuck into our fire-smoked meat – I never did find out what it was – and chopped cucumber, I felt like I had known the family for years, even though it had only been one day. No-one, not even the youngest children, seemed wary of my presence, and the elder women hugged me as often as they got the chance. The family shared their most prized foods with me, making sure my plate was never empty. And although I knew no Georgian, we all somehow seemed to understand what each other was trying to say.
Throughout my time in Georgia, I learned what hardships the constant threat of Russian invasion bring. More importantly, however, I witnessed how Georgians overcome adversity by doing perhaps the last thing that many people would expect: embracing outsiders. Gori may be dominated by its Soviet past, but its residents are perhaps the most hospitable that I have ever met.
In the face of constant hostility, Georgian hospitality is thriving.
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