“God tests how much you love him by sending you guests,” said John H. Wurdeman V. We were seated at a long table, shoe-horned into a narrow establishment in downtown Tbilisi called Azarphesha Restaurant, and before us was the first course of a long, long dinner of mezze plates.
He spoke with an American accent, and we later learned that he had lived all over the world and found that Georgia was his favorite place on Earth. Today he runs this and another restaurant with his partner Luarsab Togonidze, and had adopted Georgia as the place to raise his family.
Before us were steaming bowls of polenta with oyster mushrooms, and he was about to pour another bottle of one of the organic wines he makes in Georgia for us to taste. But the spirit of the night was his most important gift to us. Indeed, as he welcomed us as hard as he could with course after course of delightful small plates, each accompanied by his local wines that perfectly matched, it was the toasts and the sincere welcome which made us all feel so great about the evening.
This is a country that takes welcoming guests to a new level–John even went as far as to share a folktale of the man who was riven by the difficulty he faced when he had to welcome a guest–a man who had killed his brother–because hospitality to strangers and to guests trumps any personal grudges. ‘Being a good host is more important than taxes, then work, or even your brother. Receiving a guest with your whole heart is what’s most important”
More plates were brought out and more wine was poured–a salad with grilled ham, warm olives with almonds, bruscetta with ripe tomatoes, braised leeks with hard-cooked eggs, grape leaves with bulgar wheat and yogurt, and toasts were made.
There is always a theme at a celebratory dinner in Georgia, we learned, and the toasts are all offshoots of the theme. Tonight we spoke of love and friendship, and gratitude for the bounty of his adopted country.
John’s partner in the restaurant, Luarsab Togonidze, is also a polyphonic singer, and three other singers sat at a table behind us. They began singing ancient polyphonic songs, written in faraway mountain villages of Georgia.
The singing was unusual, and beautiful, but the most beautiful song came when we convinced Luarsab to get his three children, 12, 10 and 8 to join him and his wife for a tune. His 12 year old daughter, her pretty mom’s doppleganger, sipped red wine like the grown ups and smiled.
An endless list of wines were poured, and finally, they broke out oxen horns and linked arms, drinking the wine down as lovers might do with champagne. Luarsab told us how much he admires John’s devotion to learning the Georgian language after he married a local woman, and how much the two enjoy singing together as well as running the restaurant and growing grapes. “In hundreds of years, we never had a Russian want or try to learn Georgian, and here is this special man, a man I consider an inspiration, learning our songs and joining our society fully.”
I can’t think of two people more perfectly suited to welcome our group of 11 journalists to Georgia–we all feel quite at home after a day and a half, and can’t wait to see more of this fabulous land.