Though we know we owe our readers and our blog some more Georgian stories from recent experiences, we’ll jump to the present for a moment. Today’s experience is simply too good not to share immediately.
We arrived in the western Georgian town of Zugdidi this afternoon and sought out the market, as we are apt to do. We expected the familiar piles of tomatoes, herbs, and spices scattered about requisite aisles dedicated to cheeses and meat.
What we didn’t expect was to be treated to a Georgian feast and drowned in hospitality.
We befriended Leila (center) – or rather, she befriended us – an outgoing honey vendor holding court in the midst of the cheese and matsoni (Georgian yogurt) section. After the cursory questions, “Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you like Georgia?”, we enjoyed a pleasant conversation and departed to continue our market stroll.
But maybe she knew where we could get our hands on some lobio (a sort of Georgian bean soup crossed with refried beans). Absolutely delicious stuff, but surprisingly hard to find on the road. We’re told it’s fallen out of favor in some circles because of its association with the civil war period. Apparently, it was the only thing that some people ate.
Maybe Leila would know?
“So where can we find lobio?” we warbled in broken Russian. She thought out loud for a moment, in fits of broad gesticulation. We had generated a stir in the cheese aisle.
Leila disappeared, returned, cleared a space aside her honey stand and put us, the Americans, front and center. Minutes later, a feastful tray loaded with lobio, bread, cucumbers with Svaneti salt, tomatoes, and adjika (a spicy Indian pickle-like paste) appeared. Not to be left out, other vendors from throughout the market descended upon our table and delivered chunks of cheese, more vegetables, yogurt, honey, coffee and sweets.
Ia, salt and pepper hair and striking clear blue-grey eyes, sidled over with a water bottle filled with a firewater Georgian-style grappa known as cha cha. Think “better in the gas tank.” She poured us each a 3-shot dose and rolled out a toast in Georgian. All 65 years of her downed it in one gulp, while we simultaneously choked on our first sip, hoping for a pass. None to be found. Peer pressure, particularly from our cha cha’ing friend Ia, forced Dan to follow. This is what open heart surgery must feel like without anesthesia.
After downing her cha cha with arguably less gusto than her buddy Ia, Leila’s attempt to find a chaser landed her a passed water bottle. She began pounding to put out the fire. Unfortunately, it too was filled with cha cha. She almost choked, chasing fire with fire.
Later, she arrived with an assist for all of us, a honey and water blend she called a cocktail. She spent the next 15 minutes cooling herself off with bottles of ice.
We were the talk of the cheese section. Each time we turned around, we found all the vendors – mostly women, dressed curiously in black – watching us, eagerly looking for signs of approval for the lobio, the cheese, and most of all, the cha cha. Echoes of Georgian-inflected “America” bounced off the market’s overhead beams, as the news passed from one table to the next. Every now and then, a person would walk by and greet us, asking where we were from, just to be sure we were honest-to-goodness Americans.
In the end, we attempted to pay Leila and the countless other vendors who contributed to our feast, but they all roundly refused. The more we pressed, the more food they insisted we take with us on our trek into Svaneti.
Leila called us “guests,” which in Georgia carries great weight. Hospitality is serious here; guests are often treated as if a gift from God. If if we had insisted too much, we would have insulted her and the other vendors who had contributed to our feast. It’s really moving to be treated like this, particularly by people who earn very little and likely struggle to get by.
This experience is exactly why we travel and why we travel to places like Georgia.
Tomorrow morning we catch a Russian jeep to take us to the high Caucasus mountains. We hope to emerge…with some new stories and the ability to do our recent Georgian experiences justice in more posts.