Free at Last: Etseri, Svaneti

I’m sure they can hardly believe it. After twelve long years, the sentence has run its course, and the Seven are at liberty to stroll out the doors, never to return by the same status. They will start new lives, scattering in different directions: some to further study in various institutions and locations, some straight into paid professions if opportunities arise, others helping their families at home or on the farm; a few quickly into marriage and family life, perhaps (alone if they’re unusually lucky; more likely with in-laws, usually his parents, this with its own set of relational challenges particularly for the incumbent young spouse).

School, for the grade 12s, is out.

They still have final exams in all their subjects, though, determining who is even eligible for higher education and who not. They are sitting these now, by internet, under the watchful eye of an independent visiting supervisor. Results come up as soon as each person leaves the test, and are shared with the village like wildfire. Some are a shock, in a good or a bad way; others fall closely within expectations.

The party was last week. It followed hallowed traditions, involving grade one as well as those outgoing. The little ones asked their elders some pointed questions about school life and beyond—what will you become, what are your fondest or strongest memories, what will you be sorry to leave. What was the most incomprehensible phrase uttered to you, here? Actually, a sentence of mine won in this category, though whether its alien English form or its translation was the main thing, I still cannot say. I had told them in a recent class, “When you are older you will understand,” which in Georgian must have both verbs in future tense, not just one. I added that these were my parting words to them as my pupils.

The grade ones and twelves also provided some entertainment, and we made some speeches and watched an emotional, musically accompanied slide show of the latters’ first day as the formers. The grade sixes showed off their growing collection of traditional dance moves. Then, together, the oldest and youngest rang the Last Bell, both in its electrical and mechanical forms, signifying the real end of the era. My wife had accompanied them as mentor for our three years to date in the school, so this was a special day for her too, as well as for the school director, for whom similarly a long period of influence was drawing to a close.

Another thing was ending too. A brother and sister in the graduating class are the children of two of the teachers and grandchildren of a third, so the generational chain here loses a link. To make it even more interesting, their father is also the gamgebeli, or mayor, of the village.

We all signed the special white shirts which the twelves had put on, with best wishes or amusing drawings. The elevens were tasked with preparing the final supra, or feast, at which they, the twelves and we teachers sat in a festively decorated room.

The event took on the atmosphere of a game-show under the direction of the grade elevens’ mentor, who also happened to be the aforementioned grandmother. Fun and games, toasts and good food. My wife and I left with regrets after the official part was over, but it continued, as only a Georgian such occasion can, until falling darkness forced a general retreat from the unlit room.

Out of pity to spoil such a positive day, I left unsaid what I had been brooding over for days. It runs something like this: Our village, not at all uniquely, suffers from a malaise, which it’s up to you to name. There are only three options open to you as far as your response to this sickness. You can run, and save yourselves. You can allow it to infect you and become its carriers. Or you can learn how to fight it and rid the place of it, then remain standing guard to see that it doesn’t return.

Perhaps these words, already becoming permanent thanks to the internet, will be unearthed from some pixellated archive one day by one of the Seven twelves, when their English is far enough advanced to grasp them, as I’ve also lost my chance to say them in Georgian. Then we’ll see what happens.

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1000 members, at .

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

Tony Hanmer

28 May 2015 22:33