The bride's sister, Ia, organized the whole thing. She spoke better than functional English—and was thus the translator for the few Americans in attendance (though the groom's father, a military man, could get by with his Russian)—and told me that it was customary for the bride and groom to enter only after the third toasts. It's an exceptional concession, extended to young people only on their wedding night, that they're allowed to remain three drinks behind everyone else. I asked Ia if she could take special care to translate the toasts exactly, because I was interested in the precise thing being delivered; she said she'd do her best, but that I should really try to focus on the spirit with which the toasts were given, the gestures made, and the tone taken, rather than the actual words. "It's a little like a prayer," she said. "You say the same words over and over, but what's important is you say them with special feeling."

With that in mind, Ia introduced me to the tamada, Shao, a trim man in his early forties with a calculating look. He's the second cousin of the bride's late father, and he was chosen because of his deep familiarity with the long, illustrious, tragic history of the bride's family. The groom's party in full counts the father, the step- mother I'd approached at immigration, the mother, and a well-kept German named Amos who'd also been an exchange student with the family in Kansas City. The groom's family was happy to have another American present, if only for confused solidarity. Several members of the bride's family told me, via Ia, that guests are always welcome in Georgia, and that they hoped I'd get enough to drink. By the end of the toasts, they said, we'll all be family, I'll see.

Two-thirds of the seats were full—perhaps eighty guests—and Ia seemed a little anxious about the absences, but Shao decided he wasn't going to indulge the delinquent invitees. He gave the first toast not to God but to peace, and spoke fluently, with the domineering bounce of a talk-show host, for five or six minutes. For the first half, the guests remained silent, but by the end of the toast conversation had resumed. Ia was a little too preoccupied with the missing-guest situation to translate as the tamada went along, but as everyone lifted his or her glass to drink she rushed through a quick interpretation. "So, he toasted to peace, for the Georgian nation to finally have peace after so many years of war and invasion and being a part of other empires, so that Georgia may live among the nations in peace and friendship, with an end to war."

Ia turned to John, the groom's father. "Tamada says you must toast now."

"To what?" John asked.

"To peace," Ia said.

"To peace what?" John's a retired military man proud of his sti bearing, but before the reception had assumed the chatty, patronizing diplomacy of an assistant dean of students. Now he was once again alive to the chain of command.

"You need to fill your glass," Ia continued. I was seated next to him, and poured. I was alive to the chain of command, too. "Yes, that's right. Now stand up, raise your glass, and say you want to take this special opportunity to toast to the everlasting peace of the Georgian people, after all the wars they've been through."

John proceeded as instructed. He'd clearly done some preparing for this possibility, and he mentioned not just war in general but the recent war with Russia, still fresh in everybody's mind. I thought he did an honorable job, and I raised my glass to him. Ia waited until he was finished, then spoke in Georgian, at much greater length. Her translation met periodic cheers. When she finished, glasses swung high, and all the men downed the brown wine. Three musicians near the dais picked up their long-necked, three-stringed Georgian mandolins and plucked out a medley of patriotic nationalist hymns, occasionally breaking into foreign songs gaily faked with nonce syllables. While the glasses were refilled, each person in the service of his or her neighbor, servers continually delivered hot dishes as though on conveyor belts, balancing each new addition on the rims of the plates below it: saucers of phyllo-wrapped chicken egg rolls, like Turkish stuffed cigars; polished bronze tureens of something sheepishly described to me as liver but was clearly scraps of spicy rosemary offal, like a kokoretsi; and clabbering puddles of gelatinous hominy grits, which the groom's family was pleased to recognize as grits, then condemn as tasteless. The layer of cold starters was quickly plated over, though guests continued to draw portions from each stratum. At least half the dishes were decorated with pomegranate seeds, whose role as bright, ubiquitous garnish seems to underline its symbolic presence vis-à-vis Hades and everything. This country was known to the Greeks, and must know its myths, and is self-aware enough about its draconian hospitality that it's no surprise they'd adorn each table with insistent reminders that there are always consequences to the acceptance of the most trivial- seeming gifts.