(Boston, MA, USA)
Ongoing renovations at Zvartnots International Airport channeled all arriving passengers through a maze of duty-free liquors before finally releasing them into one of the world’s oldest civilizations. After having survived the maze, exchanging currency and obtaining a visa from a man who repeatedly insisted my surname is spelled incorrectly, I found my driver. He maintained that I was in Armenia and so, should speak only Armenian. Since I knew none, we drove without speaking a word early one Thursday morning in September, under the watchful eye of the setting full moon. The silence afforded, however, the opportunity to take in all the pre-dawn sites without risk of interruption. Little pastry shops slowly became illuminated with life as an army of grandmothers finished sweeping the streets before mornings first light had a chance to glisten upon the Soviet era cars that would soon choke the narrow streets, spewing exhaust that I’ve come to find out perpetually obscures Mount Ararat from view.
Finally, we arrived at my homestay. The two of us entered the well-worn antiquated elevator and found that with two grown men inside along with a suitcase it was nearly impossible to swing the doors shut. Upon reaching the fifth floor, the doors refused to open. After a brief phone call, my host mother arrived and began to shake the contraption violently to free us from the elevator shafts firm, unrelenting grasp. This would become an almost weekly occurrence until I realized finally, in the interest of self-preservation, I should always take the stairs. Once inside the apartment she welcomed me with offers of tea and cake but politely I declined in order to go to bed, all before inspecting my new abode or even unpacking my pajamas. After an hour I was woken up to have breakfast: a couple fried eggs proudly navigating a sea of vegetable oil, dodging the myriad of buoyant hotdog-icebergs dotting the sunflower yellow ocean ready to send any wayward ship to an artery-clogged grave. While she and I began to talk, to get to know the stranger we agreed to live with for 3 months, a fly buzzed through the humid kitchen. She assured me it had arrived because the ocean was close by that day. To this very day, I still haven’t the slightest idea what that means.
After our long, arduous adventure at sea we began to play the waiting game. Neighbor 1, neighbor 2, niece, and brother, slowly but surely throughout the day, they all trickled in at intervals long enough apart to prevent a jetlagged, bewildered diasporan from getting a moment to rest his eyes, to doze off, and to remember that this isn’t just a dream. It seemed all they wanted was to present me with an endless array of edible gifts, which, of course, I was to eat at once while they watched eagerly, tiny coffees in hand. Eat! Eat! They would insist. “Thanks, but I’m full,” the first sentence I desperately stumbled to try and learn. I would soon become aware that that response was absolutely meaningless, as plate after plate was placed before me and me alone. They were exceptionally curious about my life but managed only to ask the same five questions over and over again indicating, perhaps, little satisfaction with my answers: Why had I decided to come, why did my family leave Armenia, why was I never taught Armenian, did I enjoy the taste of Armenian fruits and vegetables, and would I marry an Armenian girl?
A few hours later I was led out the door, breathing air that tasted of cigarettes, walking past crumbling Soviet block housing, past packs of wild street dogs long subdued by the pains of a hungry stomach, and past a seemingly endless row of smiling sunflower seed salesmen, all before descending deep into the bowels of the earth to behold a deceptively decadent yet hauntingly empty metro system. By 5 PM, twelve hours after the planes wheels had touched the tarmac, I was in language class.
Language class proved to be a daunting experience and perhaps, I wondered, maybe a glimpse into Soviet style teaching methods. The fates placed me in a class with language learners who had started some 3 weeks prior to my arrival. For 2 grueling hours I struggled to read words and sentences that fused together seemingly familiar vowels and consonants in combinations and proportions that my poor exhausted neophyte tongue would not and could not take pleasure in. To me it seemed simply an embarrassing act of futility but I was repeatedly assured, “the methodology works.” By the end of the session, however, at least a few words seemed to have stuck, helping to gently begin to heal the wounds of a severely bruised ego. I had even managed to acquire a new nickname, Mr. Boston, from my teacher who had found my name but oddly enough not my state’s capital, difficult to remember.
After class, my new friend, a Jewish-Armenian man from California, graciously offered to guide me to the subway. On the way, for no apparent reason, he informed me that the fountain water was not only delicious but perhaps more importantly, safe to drink. I thought to myself, “why would I ever drink fountain water” but chose at that point in such a fledgling relationship not to voice my concern. It would be a day or two, I hate to admit, before I realized he meant the bubbler water and naturally not the water from the singing fountains. Even two native English speakers, two American English speakers at that, I suppose, won’t always understand each other. The thought gave me hope that maybe, in time, even my Armenian lessons would begin to make sense.
Having successfully navigated my first solo ride on the metro, I stared blankly at a map outside the train station, looking, I must assume, terribly out of place. A local man, whose unbridled enthusiasm more than made up for his broken English, insisted on helping me. For him, pointing me in the correct direction would hardly suffice, so with our arms linked, as if we were young lovers proudly displaying our affection for the whole world to see, we walked to my apartment. During our walk, I would come to learn that he knew not only my language teacher but also the director of the organization I would soon begin volunteering for. Although home to 1/3 of Armenia’s population, Yerevan remains a small, friendly city. Suddenly, thoughts of my mother came to mind. Throughout childhood she meticulously insisted on good behavior stating that in such a small world someone we knew would surely see our every action, no matter where we were. Naturally, I promised myself never to admit to her how right she was.
Once home, I found that the kitchen counters had become a makeshift storage facility for a myriad of jugs, buckets, and glasses all filled to the brim with water. My host mother was quick to inform me that while I had been in class the water to our district had been shut off. More likely than not, the water would remain off for several days. She spoke so casually that I knew, without bothering to ask, that this would become a common occurrence throughout my stay.
Saturday morning was my 1st excursion, a weekly trip with fellow volunteers to various historical sites, nature reserves, and monuments around the country. My first excursion was a 20 kilometer bicycle ride from Yerevan to Holy Echmiadzin: a ride to meet new friends from half a dozen different countries, to fall victim to two flat tires, to navigate through a sea of clumsy cows migrating across the highway, to gaze upon countless grazing sheep tethered to roadside tents despite vast adjacent pasture lands, to feel insignificant beneath gargantuan monuments dedicated to noble, accomplished men of the past, to picture a rusted, ramshackle Ferris wheel in its former glory days, to suffer from the deafening honking indicating a marriage procession, to watch colorful laundry flutter against dank concrete buildings and dry under the harsh Caucasian sun, to listen to ageless mystical songs sung in ancient churches whose courtyards were bursting with blossoms of every color, and to be stared at by curious brown-eyed children, by elderly women perpetually hunched from dusting the sidewalks with their homemade short-handled brooms, and by old men attempting, with their wrinkled emotionless faces, to buy, from the packed trunk of a car parked on the side of a highway, freshly picked watermelons that when tapped made just the right sound. It’s a sound that remains ever elusive to my ears not unlike the difference between the Armenian letters ts’ and ts.
This was the road to Echmiadzin, the beginning of my journey. But none of this could compare to the brief moment at Echmiadzin when, by chance, our paths happened to cross with the Catholicos of all Armenians, the Armenian pope if you will, who, without hesitation, criticized our clothing choices for the day: “if you were before the President or the Parliament would you be dressed like this?” To be fair, although shorts and matching sweat-soaked t-shirts are ideal bike riding gear they are anything but proper attire when visiting a centuries old seat of religious power.
There were days, occasionally, or maybe if I’m being more honest, sometimes weeks even when I wondered why I was here. The feeling exacerbated exponentially shortly after I decided to extend my trip from a mere 3 month foray to a much more formidable 8 month adventure. I repeatedly tried to convince myself I was here to change lives, to grow as an individual, and to get in touch with my roots. Standing in front of my bedroom windows, taped in place for another oncoming winter, I often wondered if any of those lofty goals were attainable. While watching the last rays of light dance playfully upon the stark genocide memorial, a solemn tribute to an unrecognized past tragedy, a sense of melancholy would often take hold. I couldn’t fathom completing any of those tasks when I couldn’t even speak the local language. To my credit, though I progressed with my Armenian skills, albeit at a most laughable pace, the locals continued to speak Russian to me. A pale-skinned blonde donning frayed khaki’s and faded argyle sandals, I suppose, does not embody the profile of a man with the capacity to converse in Armenian, an ancient language that remains largely unknown to the world beyond the Caucasus.
Believe me; I’ve failed here more than I care to admit. There have been days where I felt unaccomplished and days where I felt like a burden- on my workplace, on my faithful language teacher, on my welcoming host family, on my friends at home and even my friends here. But for whatever it is worth, in the end, if we can all listen to a couple worn out clichés, I know that I changed lives here. Through my internship at Armenia Tree Project I raised money to plant fruit, nut, and shade trees at impoverished, isolated villages in distant marz, at schools lacking constant flowing tap water or even a viable heat source for winter, and at homes for disabled orphan children, cast aside by parents who are often unable and unfortunately, sometimes even unwilling to care for them. When I talk to the Mayors of the villages we plant in they tell some amazing stories, stories that in a mere instant bring you back to earth and remind you how privileged your life has been. One village managed to produce and sell enough fruit from our donated trees that they were able to supplement the schoolchildren’s diet while also having enough money to buy a bus for the community.
In everyday conversations I feel I expose Armenians to new ideas and new beliefs. Ideas I’ve taken for granted coming from a country with open borders and a diverse population. Occasionally, when I’m willing to listen and not just talk they teach me as well. I’ve grown as an individual each and every day in ways I’m sure I can’t even fully fathom yet. And, I have indeed gotten in touch with my roots. Although, I suppose, I have an interesting interpretation of that. I’ll never introduce myself as Armenian, I’ll most likely never attain language fluency, and although I may choose to live here again someday I’ll never truly repatriate. Although fully Armenian on my dads’ side, I am also part French, German, Irish, Russian, Polish, and Native American. At the end of the day no matter what anyone else says or earnestly wants me to believe, I’m simply a third generation American.
I am, however, an American with a much better understanding of his Armenian ancestry. An ancestry I grow prouder of everyday despite the ease with which I continue to lampoon Armenian nationalism and, dare I be so bold, culture. Being here has helped me to understand my father and my grandparents better and sometimes makes me wonder what my great-grandparents, the brave immigrants, were like. I’m still trying to figure it all out, figure out what all of this has meant and what it will mean and, I’m afraid, I’ll probably never figure out everything but maybe that doesn’t truly matter. So it goes…
Armenia is, in the modern day, a rather small country, approximately the size of my home state of Massachusetts. In my short time here I have hardly seen it all but I have seen a lot. I’ve been to every marz and have seen enough monasteries to have developed a severe case of monastery fatigue that I fear will last a lifetime. During my explorations, I’ve observed that Armenia is a constantly undulating, seemingly never-ending series of jagged mountains, twisting valleys, and grassy plateaus covered by endemic wildflowers in the spring, tended to by simple, pastoral shepherds in the summer, and overflowing with harvests of nature’s bounty in autumn. Often, during my time here, I’ve heard that Armenians ‘invented this’ and ‘invented that’. I’d like to think that some Armenian, long ago, while sitting in his un-insulated home in a remote mountain village, during a particularly long, hard winter gazed upon this rugged, uneven terrain. I am convinced that this is where the idea for the roller coaster was born. Lord knows Armenian history is little more than an epic coaster in and of itself. But even if you’re like me and count roller coasters as your least favorite attraction at the amusement park I would wholeheartedly implore you to come for a ride. There are ups, there are downs, occasionally there is even a bit of barf (BARF brand laundry detergent excluded) more likely than not induced by a bad schuarma, but it is a ride you cannot miss and a ride you will never forget if only you have the courage to come. First generation to immigrate, 5th generation to be born abroad, uniquely blonde, brunette, or even sporting an untamed uni-brow, you’ll feel something. You’ll feel home even if you know, without a single doubt in your heart, you belong in the Diaspora.