Svaneti: What it Takes

I have some new American friends who have tried out living in our village, a young family I’ve previously written about. They are now back home for a few months but preparing to return next spring as far as I know. Now another similar family is considering the move too. Turns out I’m not the only crazy foreigner from a rich and developed country to want to pull up roots and resettle here! With that in mind, here are a few characteristics which I believe to be useful in anyone thinking about this momentous decision.

Good at DIY (do it yourself) or willing to learn it. This applies to things around the house—plumbing, electrical, &c—and extends to whatever might be useful in an isolated situation: minor medical, dental, automotive knowledge and other things. The better the shape you’re in, the more you can do.

Willing to have an ongoing “debt of kindness” with your neighbors. Because there will be things that you need their help with, and vice versa; and doing these things for each other goes a long way towards building good feeling. It may or may not include monetary loans—as the foreigner you will be assumed to be rich, but lending money to friends seems to be a good way to change that status for the worse. So this one needs to be handled with care.

Comfortable in discomfort from: weather changes (a good six months of snow), electricity and water coming and going, sharing your house with a number of “critters” including various insects and possibly rodents as well. My attitude to getting cold and wet outside is “There’s a warm dry house waiting for me at the end of this,” so I get on with it and come through.

Willing to try farming (it’s what everyone here does). Not necessarily on a huge scale, but it’s good to understand the ups and downs of what people here do for a living; and it can be quite satisfying too! I’ve learned how to milk the cow, and am experimenting with European style cheese production—pressed and aged, in wax or not, with various herbal additions or not. Being that I really miss the cheeses I grew up with, this is a very satisfying personal project. It’s really about finding one’s place in the community, in both one’s own and others’ perceptions.

Knowing and sticking with one’s stand on drinking. Svaneti is too high for serious grape growing, so the drinks of choice are moonshine from local fruits or other sources, beer or wine from elsewhere. I’m not teetotal, but I’ve seen firsthand many of the effects of too much drinking on the lives of the people around me, up to and including death from liver disease or drunk driving. And the freedom from inhibition that drinking brings also allows unfinished old or ancient business to rise to the top, seldom with good results.

Optimistic and positive in the face of apathy and gloom. Svaneti has had its share of ups and downs since Georgia became independent in post-Soviet times: losing the vital support of Tbilisi, becoming a nest of bandits, restoration of law and order along with much new infrastructure and all-season tourism, and now new uncertainty with the last change of government. We bought our house after it had been empty and unfinished for 10 years; the landscape is peppered with similar ones, which are lucky if their roofs survive the lack of attention during winter.

Determined to be friends with people who are each other’s enemies. A hard balance!

Ready to learn: language, history, culture, traditions and more. These things run deep; understanding them makes you more than a tourist or a stranger, it helps you fit in as much as possible. And: the more you listen, the more right to speak you earn.

Present at funerals as well as the happier occasions such as birthdays or weddings. Standing with people when it’s tough or sad as well as when it’s happy. They’ll notice.

Preferably not afraid of dogs... because not all of them are chained up, not all see the fence as their territory’s boundary, and some are bred and raised for fighting other dogs, with heightened aggression. Walk softly and carry a big stick, I say.

Realizing that these are ancient, group-based, very conservative communities, resistant to change, sometimes fiercely so. Not even 15 or so centuries of Orthodox Christianity have changed much of the old “pagan” (animist) heart, appearances notwithstanding.

Willing always to be seen as a foreigner, even if you’re Georgian but not Svan! This I have heard from Georgians who have lived here 20 years or more and know Svan perfectly. They will always be outsiders to some degree in the locals’ eyes; how much more will we real foreigners be?

This, in my humbly offered opinion from the last 16 years, is some of What it Takes to live here in Svaneti.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

12 November 2015 22:23