I stepped off the plane and went to get my suitcase at the Shota Rustaveli Tbilisi International Airport baggage claim. The airport was crowded with newly arrived passengers, and after a few minutes, the luggage efficiently swished in on the beltway. Stepping out into the crowd of people searching for their friends and relatives amongst the masses, I met the Georgian who had come to take me to my host family. As we drove through Tbilisi, he pointed out different areas and landmarks in the city, and he took a slightly longer route to show me more sites. Modern buildings were sharply lit against the dark night and shone as if it were mid-day. However, the older areas harbored cobbled streets, pre-Soviet architecture, and dim golden lamps, as if in a Dickens’ novel. My first impression of Georgia was a delightfully incongruous medley of Soviet apartments, modern sky-high structures of glass and metal, and centuries-old churches tucked into pockets here and there. While people scurried down side streets carrying groceries and returning home at the end of the day, in the car the kindly driver talked about his family to me in a mix of Georgian and Russian. Then, we arrived at my host family’s apartment, and I stepped out of the car to greet them.
According to legend, in the late 400s King Vakhtang Gorgasali took a hunting party out from the current capital of Kartli, Mtskheta. They had been travelling for a few days when the king released his falcon to catch a pheasant nearby. Both birds disappeared for a while, but the hunting party did not worry. Finally, Vakhtang Gorgasali took a party with him to search for his prize falcon and subsequent pheasant dinner. They discovered both birds dead in a boiling natural sulfur spring in the area of what is now central Tbilisi. The king ordered a city built on the spot, and made it the nation’s capital. In order to commemorate such a miraculous event as finding boiling water coming out of the ground, Vakhtang Gorgasali named the new city “Tbilisi,” stemming from the Georgian adjective for “warm,” “tbili” (თბილი). When I was told this story during a language class one morning, I learned two new words essential to its telling, pheasant (khokhobi, ხოხობი) and falcon (shevardeni, შევარდენი). Nowadays, these natural hot springs are the site of the city baths, where one can go to enjoy the company of friends, steaming water, and a good scrubbing.
I came to Georgia to study the Georgian language and all of its particularities. Here I would like to briefly introduce you to a few interesting facts about Georgian, and a basic grammatical structure so that you have the tools to create your own basic Georgian phrases. Georgian, part of the Kartvelian language group, emerged a few thousand years ago. While the writing, word usage, and structure has changed slightly over the years, Georgian in its original form is still intelligible to modern speakers. Imagine if the English of Beowulf were still in use today! Georgian, asides from having some fascinating, and equally challenging to pronounce, ejective consonants, is also famous for its consonant clusters. For example, the word brts’q’invale (ბრწყინვალე), which means “brilliant,” involves a cluster of four consonants, the ejectives being marked by the apostrophes. Let us begin our introduction with the two basic structures “How are you?” and the answer “I am well.” “How are you?”(formal) is “rogor khart?” (როგორ ხართ?). The response “I am well” is “k’argad var” (კარგად ვარ). Notice that in both instances the subject is left out, as the corresponding verb already clearly shows its owner. One last fun fact that I will leave you with in this short language lesson is that the word for glad, “mokharuli” (მოხარული), and the word for boiled, “mokharshuli” (მოხარშული), differ in Georgian by one consonant. Now you are close to being able to create the phrase, “Here is the boiled pheasant” (აქაა მოხარშული ხოხობი)!
While my main objective in Georgia was language and culture study, I also investigated what it means to different people to be Georgian. The answers of the various Tbilisi locals I spoke with were unanimously positive towards their country. Of course, not everybody listed the exact same qualities or combination of qualities of innate “Georgianness.” To some, being Georgian involved a deep connection with the land itself. To others, it was having Georgian as a birth language. Some said it was growing up in Georgia. A few named a connection to Orthodoxy as being part of what makes a Georgian a Georgian. Others referenced knowing and singing Georgian folk songs. Various people said it was about being part of thousands of years of history. A couple of people of people said that a deep part of being Georgian was staying intact as a people over centuries of invasion and territorial infringement. One unifying sentiment of “Georgianness,” despite differing opinions on how to achieve this, was that Georgia and being Georgian is all about being welcoming, embracing friends, family, and bringing outsiders in. Among such variety as a market-stall lady, a taxi driver, a communist, a tour guide, an architect, a university student, and a mother, innate Georgian hospitality was always at the top of the list. I would like to add that, from an outsider’s perspective, the tales of Georgian warmth are no myth but certain reality.
Sofia Bachman is a rising second-year MAERES student. She is spending the summer studying Georgian in Tbilisi with American Councils.