(Wayside, NJ, USA)
My first week of communication in Armenia involved a lot of gesticulation and smiling. I soon advanced into what I call the “Ayo” Phase. About as complex as it sounds, this stage consists purely of dignifying any statement or question with “ayo,” “ha, ayo,” or some variation thereof. As I a quickly learned, this approach has its drawbacks. The time I mistakenly requested a massive amount of hot peppers on my kebab comes to mind.
Fortunately, Birthright Armenia arms even the most novice of speakers with the tools necessary for communication and ultimately, immersion. The Eastern Armenian textbook written by Ms. Anahit Avetisyan, an outstanding author and passionate tutor in Yerevan, was extremely helpful. Though I was only fortunate enough to have one language lesson with her on my first day in the country, I took her book and her encouragement with me to Gyumri.
As I began to familiarize myself with the spoken language, I realized that, when meeting someone for the first time in Armenia, there is so much to say! As compared to my home in New Jersey, where even a brief wave of the hand acknowledged by a slight upward movement of the chin is a rarity, the opportunity to participate in this conversational ritual was exciting. A basic exchange between two strangers in Armenia might sound something like this:
- Barev Dzez!
- Barev Dzez!
- Inch bes es?
- Lav em. Du?
- Yes el lav em.
- Urakh em.
- Yes el.
This Armenian greeting custom fails to translate as eloquently into English; informing a passerby on the streets of Ocean Township, New Jersey that “I am glad that you are fine” would undoubtedly be reciprocated with puzzled look. My advice to any volunteer beginning their Birthright journey would be to learn, if nothing else, these few valuable phrases as they are the door to unforgettable experiences with warm and welcoming locals.
Beginning with this very basic exchange of Armenian phrases, I sipped Hygagan soorj with a sweater vendor at Vernisage. Asia is a woman in her seventies. She has three children, two grandchildren, a quick wit, a big heart, and a talent for crocheting. She spends three days making each sweater and sells her wears every weekend.
Rasmik is a Gyumretsi cow herder. On our morning runs, the Gyumri volunteers would send our greetings to Rasmik and his cows as we ran passed the expansive wheat fields on the outskirts of the city. He would return the good wishes with not one, but five enthusiastic “Hajoghutyoon dzez”s in succession. This fast became a much awaited morning ritual. Eventually, Rasmik was invited to a picnic, where we ate, drank, and danced to Yerevani Akhchigneri in the wheat fields. Though Rasmik was obliged to leave the party a bit early, as his cows began to wander away, our unforgettable picnic can be traced back to a single “Barev dzez.”
After living two months in Gyumri, Armenia, I am what I would consider conversational in Eastern Armenian. While I am proud of the progress I have made here, I am not satisfied. This I believe, is both a reason to continue my language studies when I return to the United States, and also a reason to return to Armenia better prepared to listen and contribute.”
If these conversational phrases are the door to unforgettable experiences, then Birthright Armenia surely holds the key. The organization brought me to this country, armed me with the language skills that I needed, and re-connected me with an Armenian heritage that I felt was diluted before I arrived. Whether you speak the language fluently, or like me, only have hopes of doing so one day, I urge to those considering it to come to Armenia ready to listen. Listen to the stories of others, create your own, and share them in any language.