Whisky & Culture

The curiosity of travel

Jefferson Chase on the drinking culture in Georgia
By Jefferson Chase
Good travel writing makes you curious about places you'd never want to go to. In Wendell Steavenson’s Stories I Stole, that place is Georgia – a den of lawlessness full of boozing, jesting, musical, gun toting, and not quite likable hillbillies.Lest there be any misunderstandings, the Georgia we’re talking about is not the American state of Ray Charles fame, but the former Soviet republic in the Southern Caucasus. And the author, despite being called Wendell, is a female Time magazine reporter who spent two years based in Tbilisi for reasons not entirely clear even to herself.The first trouble Steavenson gets herself into is the tamada, a drinking ceremony intended to welcome guests and allow the hosts to show off.It was a kind of aggression. When they did not know you well, they filled your glass and filled it again and carefully watched how you drank it. This was their measure of you; this was done to disarm you. Georgian to Georgian, between friends and family, at funerals and birthdays, for meeting and for parting, the toasting was less belligerent. The quantities, however, were still fairly large and could provoke either love or violence. This was the Georgian way, friend or enemy with nothing in between. History was lost in tradition, drinking a way of remembering and forgetting.Steavenson has a keen eye for the subtexts of social rituals, including drinking sessions. You can almost feel the hangover coming the morning after this one.Unfortunately for Steavenson, a keen eye isn’t much consolation during winter in a country where electricity is often only available for three hours a day. For warmth she has to turn elsewhere: Generosity of spirit, generosity of cheap vodka, generosity of crumbling faded architecture, the generosity of time, which hung about meaninglessly, all this, and friendship, yes, but no material generosity; Tbilisi was mean with its comfort. Luxury was my bottle of single malt and the level was falling.To keep moving against the cold, and to relieve the tedium, Steavenson begins travelling around, taking in the past grandeur and present-day chaos of the multi-ethnic, patchwork country where Stalin was born. The ghost of the Soviet dictator is everywhere.One of the best chapters is entitled “Large Abandoned Objects” – huge statues no one has bothered removing from Georgia’s roadsides.This is a funny book, but there’s no shortage of sadness as well. On a visit to the region of Khevsureti, she asks an impoverished local what he wants for his children. She gets the following answer: ‘They should know how to count money,’ continued Apfi, taking a swig of the chacha, ‘how many kopeks make a lari and how many lari he should get for a cow.’ I nodded. Zaliko took up his balalaika and began to pick at the strings. The notes were brief and discordant, whining and broody. He began to sing gently, laughing, putting his thoughts into rhyme.‘Time and money,’ sang Zaliko, ‘time and money.’ He made up two fine verses about time and money and everyone laughed along with him. Then he put down his instrument and added, ‘Time and money: I don’t like these things.’ There are two reasons to hate time – because it goes so quickly or because it goes so slowly. For most Georgians, it seems, it’s the latter.Reading Stories I Stole, with its many scenes of drinking, I couldn’t help thinking how utterly foreign the world Steavenson depicts is from the one inhabited by the vast majority of readers of this magazine.And that, I found, made the book well worth reading. In some sense, Wendell Steavenson went to Georgia so that we don’t have to.