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Thanksgiving in the Caucasus Mountains

Ellis Johnson ’18 (Russian and Physics) is currently studying abroad on the Dickinson-in-Moscow program. He also spent summer 2016 on a Russian immersion program in Narva, Estonia. 

On Thanksgiving, it was strange to be on the other side of the world at a time of the year when I would like nothing better than a home cooked meal with my family. This year, I found myself sick with a terrible case of food poisoning. I spent much of the day bedridden in a youth hostel in the small country of Georgia, 12 time zones away from my house in Oregon.

After an exhausting few days of traveling up and down the country, determined not to let illness ruin my trip to an astonishingly beautiful place, my traveling companion and myself reached the small town of Vardsia. Exiting our marshrutka (a minivan-like form of transportation popular in the former Soviet Union), we stepped out and took in the small town: one restaurant, one hotel, and a small stand for tickets to the old cliff city, which we planned on seeing the next day. I had finally started to feel a little better and ate a snack before checking into our modest hotel. There, we were informed we would have no heat throughout night and would have to bundle up stay warm as the outside temperature dropped to a frosty 28 degrees. I laid down in bed as I told myself I had enjoyed the trip and that we would only be here for one night anyway.

It was after an hour of half joking, half complaining banter that my friend and I heard a knock on the door. In one of the few bouts of English we had heard during our trip, a voice proclaimed, “We will see you soon downstairs, we hope you will join us.” Confused, we decided to at least investigate the invitation. As we walked downstairs into the dining room, we were amazed at what we saw: more than 20 people sat at a long wooden table piled high with an enormous amount of food. As they saw us enter the room, a wave of excitement shot through the crowd. Our hosts quickly motioned to my seat next to the head of the table and adjacent to the orthodox priest who was there to preside over the evening’s activities.

I was astounded as mountains of food were passed toward me and foreign hands placed delicious looking morsels one after another onto my plate. Once the family learned that we were both studying Russian, they excitingly switched into the language. After I ate a bit of food and was introduced to the key members of the family, the family head began explaining the importance of tonight’s dinner.

We were told that every year, for more than two centuries, his family gathered in this small village and made dinner to celebrate their ancestors who had lived in the cliff city of Vardsia 900 years ago. This is when my glass was filled with a strong wine and the first of many toasts was made. As he spoke in Georgian, he smiled and gestured to me and my friend. After he finished, he translated the long toast in Russian.

He told us that the first toast was to the most important thing in life: family. Today, he explained, everyone who shared the table was family, including guests and new friends who sat amongst them. Recovering from food poisoning, I began the night with no aspirations of drinking Georgian wine, however after such a toast, I raised my glass. “Alex” he said, having decided Ellis was not Georgian enough, “this toast is an important one, you must drink whole glass.” What I didn’t realize was that in Georgia, every toast is an important one …

Hours passed and many more toasts were made: for ancestors, for friends, for grandma and grandpa, old homes, new homes, friends (again), for joy and happiness, grandpa (again), and then another for grandpa because apparently he was a hell of a guy, as well as a half dozen more that I can’t quite remember. Breaking up the endless list of things they had to be thankful for, we were treated to a blissful choir of traditional Georgian music. As the guitar and drums passed from hand to hand, each playing their own personal favorites, others joined in or left their seats to dance. I couldn’t help but try to learn some traditional Georgian dance moves and had a blast teaching the youngest of the family how to “pindrop.”

As the evening wound down slightly, I decided it was about time I retired to my frigid room. Before I left, the host exclaimed that I had to make a final toast. Below is a translation of the broken Russian I was undoubtedly speaking at this point:

“To start, I am sorry that my Russian is not great and my words are not very beautiful. But, I need to say ‘thank you’. This week was Thanksgiving, a very special day in America. I could not be there with my family and it hurt my heart to be abroad. However, here at this table, I feel like I am loved. I feel like I am with family. Thank you, thank you so much.”

The table raised their glasses, cheered, and drank another cup of their beloved wine, but this time to the words of an outsider whom they had only known for a few hours. I was hugged by many of them and we wished each other a peaceful night.

From entering the room at 7pm to when I left at 12 in the morning, I smiled profusely. Nothing can beat the feeling of being home, but for the first time in my life the kindness of these strangers in a small town in Georgia came very, very close.


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