Why Georgia?

In September I spent two weeks traveling the country of Georgia. It was a sensory-overload trip full of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes in some ways similar yet overwhelmingly different than anything I had previously experienced. It was a significant, mile-marker adventure in a number of ways: my first real vacation since my solo South American trip in 2018, my first journey outside the US since the start of the pandemic, the first vacation my boyfriend and I experienced together. The weeks leading up to our departure were filled with daily rituals: checking both the US and Georgia’s entry requirements, tracking (and worrying) over rising COVID case counts, repeating the same phrase over and over again, “We’re going to Georgia the country not the state.”  The most popular question people asked was where in the world Georgia is (an easy enough answer: northeast of Turkey, south of Russia, at the crossroads between Europe and Asia). The second question, though, was always “why,” and that is more difficult to answer.

Enjoying a glass of wine in Sighnaghi in the Kakheti wine region

It started with a restaurant here in Portland, Kargi Gogo (now closed), and a dinner date nearly three years ago with a guy who has long been out of my life. He had eaten there before so I let him handle the ordering: khachapuri and khinkali, probably the most well-known staples of Georgian cuisine. I remember that we were seated outside, so it must have been spring; and I vaguely recall a conversation about how every culture has a form of dumpling in their cuisine. But beyond that, everything is hazy except for the food.

Savoring a bite of khachapuri in Tbilisi

First the khachapuri- a delightful bread boat of perfectly golden cheese with the yellow sun of a freshly cracked egg floating above. That first experience of stirring and scrambling the egg into the hot cheese, and watching the ooziness of the egg cook before my eyes. Taking that first bite of melty, gooey, cheesy goodness- a taste of comfort and warmth in a single bite. Then the khinkali- beautifully twisted mounds of dough filled with spiced meats. The fun in eating with only my hands, slurping out the juices while an unfamiliar combination of flavors exploded in my mouth. Bread, cheese, dumplings- so simple yet so wonderful.

Wine with a view in Mestia in the Svaneti region

Maybe it’s odd that such basic foods could spark an interest in travel, but I’ve always had an immense appreciation for comfort foods. I grew up a picky eater in a house where my mom made home-cooked meals every night. The basics were what I lived and grew up on, literally. My picky eating habits disappeared around the time I started traveling, and now living in a culinary-innovative place like Portland makes me excited about new food trends, but it is still the comforts that I crave and love the most.

Eating khinkali while on the road to Stepantsminda

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, when we were on “lockdown” and everything was unknown, it was old family comfort food that I turned to. I spent hours in the kitchen one night making homemade pierogies- a favorite dish of my mom’s that I remember my grandmother making that originated from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Forming each dumpling by hand that night was an experience close to meditation as I reflected on myself, my grandmother, Maude, and the connections we make as humans. It was thrilling to me that my hands were forming the same shapes that Maude’s once made decades earlier and 2500 miles east from where I stood. And there were other, older women whose hands had performed the same motions before her, whose hearts had carried the knowledge and tradition across one continent and ocean to the small western Pennsylvania town where Maude was born. It was somewhere in this period of reflection that I recalled the moment a year earlier when I had first tried a different type of dumpling from a country further east than Poland, the khinkali of Georgia.

Enjoying dinner in Stepantsminda

Remembering that meal, and dreaming about traveling again, I decided to do a quick google search about Georgia. That search led me to one of the most well-known facts about the country in regard to tourism- Georgia is considered the birthplace, or cradle, of wine. People have been making wine there for 8000 years, and their vines are some of the oldest in the world. Then a forgotten memory lit up in my brain- two clay bottles of wine with strange markings carved on them that used to sit on my counter five or six years earlier. The bottles had been passed down to me from a cousin via an aunt, but she didn’t know how old they were or even where they had come from. As I stared at the google images of Georgian clay pots used for wine-making (called qvevri) and realized that those wine bottles had come from Georgia, I tried to remember what had happened to them. I recalled drinking the wine, and I had an image of one of the bottles being used as a flower vase, but it seemed they disappeared during one of my many apartment moves back in Pittsburgh. In any case, I knew for sure that the bottles had never made the cross-country trek to Portland so there was no way for me to compare to the images online.

Loving the mountains surrounding the town of Ushguli in the Svaneti region

After that night Georgia became something like a pandemic pipe dream. It was a search I would return to when I was feeling stressed about current events and wanted to escape reality, and it started to feel like an ideal place for me to go. Off the beaten track, a region with good food and wine, full of history, home to mountains and beaches, a culture very different than anywhere I had traveled before. I realize that in looking back I’m romanticizing the decision-making process, but it really did feel like one element flowed into another until one day it was just expected that the trip would happen.

Vardzia cave monastery

So why Georgia? The short and easy answer is that I wanted to go for the food and wine. But the longer truth is that it was a flow of memories and collection of feelings that became a dream, until eventually one day it was a reality.

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