I met Irakli on the flight from Munich to Tbilisi. Being used to the indifference of fellow passengers on American flights, I did not expect more than a perfunctory greeting upon taking my seat. But rather than ontological rejection, Irakli offered conversation and later dinner in one of his restaurants.
I was coming to Tbilisi, along with my son, Alexander, to give three talks at various universities, get to know the city, and visit some monasteries in the eastern part of the country. Since Georgia seemed to be opening up as a travel destination, I thought I should see Tbilisi before it became another Prague, inundated by westerners writing their first novels.
Even in our first walk, we were taken by the city’s topography and architecture. Built along the banks of the Kura River, Tbilisi shows the influences of the many peoples and empires that have marched through the area. The old city, where we stayed, follows the here-and-there street pattern of medieval times. Brick houses have balconies that are sometimes enclosed and painted in Ottoman fashion. Other houses have multicolored roof tiles that add to the whimsical effect.
The museums tend to be in the modern part of the town, especially along the elegant Rustaveli Avenue, where the neoclassical lives along the art nouveau, pseudo-Moorish, and the Soviet Stalinist. Surrounding the city we saw churches erected on high hills or rocks that, when illuminated at night, seemed suspended in air.
The interior spaces were just as fanciful. On our fist day we stopped for tea in a café on the third floor of a brick building that resembled a Victorian parlor and before my first lecture we had lunch in a restaurant whose interior décor and fixtures indicated Iranian influences.
Sitting in this café I tried repeatedly to call Irakli with no success. Frustratingly my emails to him had also bounced back. I finally reached him the next day by phone as we descended a steep mountain whose summit housed a monastery so isolated that not even our Georgian driver had seen it previously. Relieved that I finally called, Irakli told me that he and his wife, Anna, would pick us up that evening.
After a day of hiking and, in my case after being almost bitten by two dogs, we looked forward to dinner in one of our host’s restaurants, an energetic, modern space with high ceiling and an open kitchen that specializes in Georgian cuisine. As we sat down Irakli explained that, since we would be toasting quite a bit during the meal, he ordered a light rosé.
“How much is in that carafe,” I asked after the waitress brought it to the table. “About a liter and a half,” he responded, adding that we would need two more during the whole evening. Although we as guests were not expected to do so, it was traditional to gulp down the entire glass with each toast.
The feast lasted four hours, one delicacy after another, in what must have been about 16 to 20 plates. But for Alexander and me what was remarkable was the ritual of the toast. As we discovered, toasting in Georgia is not a gesture of hurriedly mumbling “to your health.” Each round is an elegant process that can last as long as five minutes. Never abruptly introduced, every toast is incorporated naturally into the dinner.
As tamada master, Irakli determined when and what we would drink to. In the course of the conversation he would turn to the next toast unobtrusively, say about peace, motherhood, or Georgia, and then go into a long and eloquent discourse. We would finish the toast and then return to the dialogue while more plates were brought to the table.
I listened to Irakli’s lovely words, also appreciating the diversity of flavors we were offered. But, as a foreign guest, I began to worry about my own role in the process. Should I make a toast myself? So without the deftness of my host, I simply raised my glass to friendship. At that point Anna and Irakli looked at me with surprise. What had I done, I wondered? Had I committed a faux pas?
With the same finesse that he introduced his toasts, Irakli explained that only the tamada is permitted to make toast and, on top of that, a drink to friendship requires distinctive vessels. So we stopped everything as Irakli ordered special clay bowls that he filled with wine for this occasion only.
When this distinctive toast was over, I asked Irakli about his friends. He told me that he saw his two to three times a week. “How is it possible,” I asked, “that as an owner of so many restaurants, a husband, and father of three children, that you could see friends so often?” My questions seemed incomprehensible to him. How he could not see them, he wondered. To his horror I said that I did not know a single person in the United States past their early twenties who met friends with such frequency.
So I turned to Anna, a well-known surgeon. She couldn’t possibly have much time for friendship, given her professional and family obligations. Before answering, Anna smiled impishly, turned her head to the right, blew out some cigarette smoke and then said that she saw her friends twice a week.
What gives? How can they see their friends so often and we don’t? Of course, Irakli’s and Anna’s situation is not unique. In other parts of the world a friendship culture seems to thrive. In Salta, Northern Argentina, for instance, our guide, Mario, who led us through mountain hikes a couple of years ago, told me that his group organized an asado (outdoor grill) every Wednesday. It was assumed that everyone would attend and friends only texted Mario if they could not.
So why not in the US? Is it because in western societies marriage and family have become antagonists of friendship, making people subservient to family at the expense of non-kinship relations? (Surely in no other part of the world do exhausted parents drive their over-booked children to ever more soccer games and piano lessons.) Has the American family become a suffocating institution, not tolerating any competition? Or has geographical mobility undermined the tight relationships of friendship? After all, Irakli, Anna, and Mario can get together so often because they live so close to each other. Or has friendship been converted into a luxury, like literature and art, activities which people pursue only when they have spare time?
I thought about these questions during our drive the next day to eastern Georgia, in search of monasteries below the snowy Caucasus Mountains and almost on the border of Azerbaijan. Over many hours we visited fanciful structures with cone-shaped domes either perched on high hills or guarded by tall walls. When just before sunset we stopped for tea in the house of our driver, along with Mariam and Diana, our hosts, I wondered whether in western societies the family has become the new monasticism. Is the American family the equivalent of these remote monasteries in the Caucasus, isolating people from the outside world?
I addressed this issue during my presentation at the Caucasus International University where a working group on peace and conflict resolution had invited me to consider how literature could contribute to world peace. During the discussion earnest students asked me how works of literature could enable coexistence between peoples, say, between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While I could not offer any direct hope in that situation, I tried to argue that literature promotes empathic thinking by encouraging people to step out of their consciousness and enter the mind of characters in a story. I suggested that if readers could put themselves in the shoes of a literary character, they could also try to do so with respect to real people — their enemies, refugees, or anyone they are not familiar or related to.
I also proposed that this is what friendship does as well. Friends are the first links we form as children outside of the family. Our friends urge us to open up to individuals beyond our house by encouraging us to acknowledge that other people have their own perspectives, just as we do. At the very least, friendship is a way of recognizing that those next to us have a valid way of looking at the world, even though it’s different from our own. The friend, as Aristotle has suggested, is a version of the self. We form friends by interacting with others.
Friendship somehow linked our dinner with Irakli and Anna, our drive to the Caucasus Mountains, and our final discussions in Tbilisi on conflict resolution. Friends inspire us to escape the monasticism of our thinking by asking us to embrace people who live outside our home.