More than cousins: an Italian discovering Georgia
May 27, 2024

More than cousins: an Italian discovering Georgia


I’m sure it happened to you too, it’s normal when changing our environment. 

We do not need to travel that far to experience how our brain will try to find connections that transcend borders, moments of recognition that bridge the gap between new lands and the comforting traits of home.

From Rome to Tbilisi, I lived in the Caucasus for around one year. 

The first months, I didn’t realise I was hundreds of kilometres from where I used to live. I’d like to justify it by saying that I am a citizen of the world, but it’s more because I couldn’t get my head around this unexpectedly familiar place: Georgia is sometimes rich and sometimes crumbling, sometimes a bright explosion of nature and art, while sometimes decadent and full of smog. 

It’s ancient and has a fascinating and decidedly complex history due to the countless dominations that have subjugated it over the centuries, but with a look which goes beyond, a nation firmly attached to its roots. 

It’s a country inhabited by proud people with a strong sense of belonging.

For those who have an idea of the vibrant tapestry of Italian culture, it is hard not to notice striking parallels between these two distant yet remarkably similar nations. 

Let’s start with the people. 

Open heart: the golden rule

Whether it’s sharing a meal around the dinner table or engaging in lively conversations over a cup of chacha – the strong Georgian grape brandy – the sense of community is palpable in both countries. Much like Italians, Georgians have a natural inclination towards hospitality, treating guests like family and welcoming strangers with open arms.

In my case, it all started with a thumb up. I had never hitchhiked before: it’s a matter of moments, a game of understanding, glances, sensations. Head always on my shoulders and feet firmly on the ground, I oriented myself by going with what intrigued me, in total spontaneity.

I was walking in the mountains, near the border with Turkey, in villages where the Orthodox community coexists peacefully with the Muslim minority. I was looking for the small inlaid wooden and coloured mosques found in the forests of this area. Abandoned by the technology that could not work out where I was, I passed a gate from which a small stocky lady with short white hair and keen eyes emerged. She scrutinised my presence diffidently, to which I returned a smile and a greeting. Just as I was about to leave, she called me over and said something. I did not understand, but I turned back to her. As best I could, I explained that I was not local, so she invited me into her home for coffee. I didn’t think twice about it. I felt treated like a long-awaited guest: she set the table, gathered the family who were working in the fields to introduce them to me, showed me pictures and shared stories. I stayed in her house for three days. It is with this image of Mrs. Esteri that I like to remember the big heart of Georgian people.  

Reverence for food 

Do you think that I had more food or clothes when leaving Italy for Georgia? I don’t need to describe the laughter of my flatmates when I opened my bag and started pulling out wonders like a tin of extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese and packs of coffee. I’ve always been open to the cuisine of other countries, but have you ever experienced the melancholy of not remembering the taste of home? And memories related to taste are among the strongest!

Yet, my worries were in vain. I should definitely have put more clothes in my backpack – Georgian winter, how cold! Besides, I never missed pizza. Its cousin khachapuri – cheese-filled bread – was at its best. Each region has its speciality; I’m a super fan of the Megrelian and Adjarian versions, the famous boat filled with sulguni cheese, butter, and eggs, just so you know. 

The pure revelation was the khinkali, this little parcel of dough that holds meat or other fillings, and broth that has to be drunk as well. Essentially the khinkali is taken from the petiole, tipped over and nibbled on by sucking up the broth and gradually eating it. The less broth you drop on your plate, the more experienced you are. I remember the first time, somewhere between pathetic and hilarious.

Khinkali and beer is the appetiser formula here. It’s funny how they explained to me to eat it: “you are Italian, shake your hand in your gesture, the pinched fingers…” Well, what can I say, it works. With each shake a bite and the khinkali would run out immediately.

The fact is that food is not just sustenance in Italy and Georgia: it’s a way of life, a source of pride, and a reflection of cultural identity. Special attention must be given to the importance placed on the rituals surrounding it. Whether it’s gathering with loved ones for Sunday lunch or celebrating festive occasions with feasts, Italians and Georgians alike understand the power of food to bring people together and create lasting memories.

Folklore

It starts with a bang right away: step, step, turn, pirouette! Jump, split in the air and fall to the knees, get back up energetically and again stride on the toes, while the arms shake the air with decisive movements. The quick shifts can be recognized by the marked noise of each stride, while the plumage of the headgears sways sinuously with each move. The music proceeds daring and embracing, so much so that it is impossible to stop my foot from holding the rhythm along with the percussionists. My whole body would like to participate in this frenetic explosion of energy!

No cultural exploration of Italy and Georgia would be complete without mentioning the traditions of dance and music that are deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. I went to see the Sukhishvilebi, the country’s most renowned troupe, and, honestly, in no other place as in Georgia have I seen such a tight-knit following of folk dances. 

After the men, the women take the stage. Gentle beings, they bring my emphasis back to the floor, giving me a hypnotic sense of stillness. Unlike the men and their test of strength and stamina, the women embody virtue and grace, drawing vaults with their arms and bodies wrapped in colourful robes. After all, this is how the couple Nino Ramishvili and Iliko Sukhishvili, creators of the Georgian dance, had envisioned them. The sense would be to show national identity in all its richness and variety. There are more than fifteen different types of dance: each choreography relates to its region of origin and interprets its local tradition as much in the values it celebrates as in the costumes and music; the resulting combinations are fascinating.

Now, back in Italy, looking back at my time in Georgia makes me smile.

I could say much more, but maybe, in the end, it’s our shared humanity lived with an open heart that truly unites us.




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