Homepage   |   Stories   |   Ulf Ärnström   |   E-mail   |   Homepage in swedish   

Letīs drink to storytelling

Georgian toasts

IN UKRAINE, georgians are known for making long toasts, long speeches at the dinner table. A listener can say something like "alavirdi". That means that he wants to add something the previous talker forgot. This is done in a spirit of joyful competition, with the objective of making the longest speech. The true winners are probably the listeners!

I heard this described by a Ukrainian interpreter, Oksana Snitko from Kiev and her collegue. It reminded me of my talkative uncles who always tries to outdo each other with long speeches at every successful gathering of relatives. One of their masterpieces in the arena of tounge battles is a short story which ends with the most famous of the swedish drinking songs.

En riddare red vägen fram.
På vägen mötte han en munk.
Ur vägen munk, röt riddaren.
Ur vägen själv, återtog munken.
Då drog riddaren sitt svärd och klöv munken i tvägge delar.
Den ena delen föll ner i dikan.
Den andra fortsatte vägen fram, glatt sjungande:
"Halvan går, sjung hopp faderallan lallan lej..."

In english it would be something like:

A knight came riding on the road when he met a monk.
Get ot of my way, said the knight.
You get out of my way, said the monk.
Then the knight drew his sword and hacked the monk into two halves.
Half of the monk fell into the ditch.
The other half continued walking along the road, happily singing:
"The half is walking, sing..."

Next I will perform a deconstruction (some would say destruction!) of this story. Those of you who are impatient can go directly to the georgian toasts. But be warned, you might not understand them!

Now I am running into really serious translation problems, because you must know the cultural context to get the joke. And trying to explain a joke is a dangerous and comic business! The funny part for a swede is that "halvan" has two meanings. One is the literal, "the half". The other meaning is a name for the second drink at a dinner. The word "går" also has two meanings, the literal, "walks", and the other simply means that now we drink!

Let us try to reconstruct the creation of the story about the monk and the knight! It starts with the song-toast "Halvan går...", an expression which is very well-known. But few swedes, probably with the exceptions of folklorists, has any idea of why drinks has names and of what they mean. So we have a kind of "cute mystery". Mysteries demand explanations and they often come dressed as stories. Now if you interpret the expression "halvan går" literally, or visually, you will see an amazing picture of something half walking. You are reminded of the zen buddist question: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?". Anyway, the mystery is "explained" by the story, so we have a kind of comic "explanation legend" like the tale about why the bear has such a short tail.

The georgian toasts has a similar structure. They tell a story which illustrates in a more or less comic way, why we should appreciate someone or something, like friendship, vodka or in one of them even "Karlsson on the roof"!

Before we proceed to the toasts I want to remind you, my dear readers, of the importance of knowing the context of the kind of artful talk I am going to describe. You cannot understand the georgian toasts if you cannot understand the atmosphere, if you cannot imagine what they will create in the company around the dinner table.

This is an aspect of storytelling which is very close to my heart, the culture-building dimension. Some stories can easily be taken out of context, written down, printed in a book and read anywhere. But to me storytelling is about creating a powerful local culture. To this end you need stories which are context-sensitive, dependent on the setting and the way they are told rather than the story itself. These stories can not be told anywhere. To read them can at best give you a weak echo of the power they would have when told at the right moment. That is why I am so fascinated by this genre.

And now, at last, for some of the toasts Oksana told me. They should be performed in russian or ukrainian with a georgian accent, so you have to imagine what that would sound like. Please donīt use the headlines, you would never introduce them with something like that. I only added them to aid reading and remembering

The Strange Eagle
Once upon a time, at a village high up in the georgian mountains there lived a strange eagle. Every day, the eagle flew high up in the skies and every day it threw itself down on to the bare ground with itīs naked bottom.
And all the people were wondering, why is it that this strange eagle every day flies high up in the skies and then throws itself down on to the bare ground with its naked bottom. The people didnīt know why and one day they lost their patience and the went to the eagle and they asked:
- O Dear Strange Eagle, why is it that every day you fly high up in the skies and then throws yourself down on to the bare ground with your naked bottom?
And the eagle said:
- O Dear People, it must be difficult for you to understand why every day, I fly high up in the skies and then throws myself down on to the bare ground with my naked bottom. It is because I have no friends!

So let us drink to friendship!

And another, shorter one:

Desires and Opportunities
Listen dear!
I could buy a goat.
But I donīt want to.
But I want so much to buy a car!
But I can not!

So letīs drink so that our desires always will coincide with our opportunities!

The following toast was told during the "soviet times" to make fun of the propaganda for collectivism.

The Collective of Birds
A flock of birds were flying above the mountains.
And then one bird separated from the others.
And she started to fly up into the skies high up to the sun,
and she was flying higher and higher,
and she almost reached the sun,
and she burned hur wings,
and she fell down in the deepest ravines of all the deep ravines!

So letīs drink that noone will tear away from the collective!

The next toast was created during the perestrojka, the "restructuring" of the soviet system.

The Oak and the Wind
In one valley, there was a large, large oak.
The oak had a very powerful root and a huge trunk and very strong branches.
And now in this valley, a little wind started to blow.
But only a few leaves moved.
Then a strong wind started blowing.
But only a few branches moved because of the wind.
Then a little storm started to blow.
But the big oak remained standing.
Suddenly a huge storm began to blow,
and it blew the oak out of the earth!

So let us drink to the wind of changes!

This tradition is georgian in origin, but what I have described is itīs modern adaption among ukrainians. I will continue my exploration of this genre. There are more toasts to come, among them the one dedicated to "Karlsson on the roof".

I hope that by now you have got a sense of what the georgian toasts are all about, so please start making up your own. Or perhaps you know traditional ones? In any case, donīt forget to send them to me!

So letīs drink to the Georgian Toasts!

© 2001 Ulf Ärnström      >>> to the top of the page

  Homepage   |   Stories   |   Ulf Ärnström   |   E-mail   |   Homepage in swedish    Site Meter