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The Value of Georgian

It gets on my nerves when people ask me why I want to study Georgian, a language only spoken by about 5 million people. They usually follow up by asking me why I don’t just learn Russian because it is more useful and widely spoken. I have a hard time disagreeing completely with this argument, but I have never really cared much for practicality or “usefulness”. I was having a conversation along these lines on the plane ride to Svaneti last weekend. A German backpacker was telling me in no uncertain terms that studying Georgian was a waste of my time and effort. Rather than argue with someone who is more or less correct I just agreed noncommittally and smiled.

Svaneti is a wild isolated region of Georgia where people still live in stone towers. The Svan people have a reputation among Georgians for being insular, belligerently traditional as well as bit dangerous. Historically several empires have controlled Georgia at one time or another and throughout all of this the Svan people have pretty much done their own thing. Even the Soviets had only a nominal amount of control over what went on in this high mountain region.  Svaneti has only just recently become a practical and safe destination for casual tourists and the tourism infrastructure up there is still somewhat rudimentary. This combined with the fact that the Svan holiday of Kvirikobas was being celebrated made last weekend the perfect time to visit.

It was really a perfect weekend. I stayed in a family run guesthouse recommended to me by an old guy I chatted with on the Marshrutka ride into town. The guesthouse fed me just about as much home cooked Georgian food and fresh bread as I could eat. The beds and showers were immaculate and there was hot water, all for 35 lari a night. After chatting with the owners of the guesthouse they introduced me to their neighbor’s daughter’s husband who offered to drive me to Ushguli and take me to the Svan festival of Kvirikobas if I could just chip in for gas. That evening he took his friends and I out to a café for kubdari and beer. At the end of the weekend, I was remarking to myself that the Svan people didn’t really deserve their reputation for being closed off to strangers or even dangerous. Furthermore, I was thrilled that the foreigner as a cash cow sentiment so prevalent in many tourist destinations hadn’t yet infected Svaneti. Things got confusing occasionally when the conversation drifted from Georgian into the Svan language but everyone was really good-natured about speaking to me in Georgian and treating me like a guest not a customer.

Sunday afternoon rolled around and by coincidence the same German was on the flight back to Tbilisi with me. We began talking casually about our respective trips. He was really incensed about the cost of everything, complaining that things in Svaneti were actually more expensive than Tbilisi. He complained that his room had cost him 50 lari a night without food; I agreed with him that that was a bit steep. He was further surprised that a driver to Ushguli cost him 150 lari. He had heard that there was a festival being celebrated in the mountains but wasn’t sure where it was or how to get there so he had missed out. Finally, he began to complain about how Svaneti was quickly becoming over touristed and how the locals didn’t speak English and their Russian was barely intelligible.  I tried very very hard to keep a sanctimonious look off my face by reminding myself that I probably wouldn’t have a very good time in Moscow. I am not sure that I succeeded all together in not appearing smug.

Patrick Thoendel is studying Georgian in Tbilisi (summer 2012)