(Boston, MA, USA)
I feel as though I could write 100 travelogues about my experience in Armenia and even that would not be enough to describe every facet of it. If you had told me last May that this summer would be the best of my life, I would have had a hard time believing you. My purpose in coming to Armenia was very practical: to improve my Armenian, spend time with my family, and get some work experience abroad. Instead, I made some of the best friends of my life, felt at home in a way I’ve never felt before, and made some very life-altering decisions about the course of my career and personal life.
I was born in Moscow in 1984, and both my parents were dissidents. My Armenian father had devoted most of his life to the Armenian independence movement, while my Jewish mother had spent most of hers fighting for the freedom to emigrate to Israel. My father was exiled from the Soviet Union when I was 4 years old and his citizenship was taken from him. My family joined him, first in Paris and then in Los Angeles, but eventually, his citizenship was returned and he came back to Armenia. My mother, on the other hand, made the decision to stay in the US, and I remained there for the next twenty years. If asked where I was from, I would always respond “Armenia”, although I had already forgotten the Armenian of my childhood, and to make life easier for my American schoolmates, I used my middle name Ruth instead of Azatuhi.
It was only when I came to college that I started feeling connected to the Armenian community again. At Columbia, I was able to take Armenian history and language classes and learn more about my family. I hadn’t even known about the Armenian genocide until I came to college, and I began to ask questions of my father and his family. I discovered that we were the descendants of refugees from Constantinople and Van, and my affinity to the Orient started making more and more sense.
Although I came to Armenia two years ago with my family, this experience was completely different. My life in Armenia with Depi Hayk was independent and not at all touristy. A very simple example: as a tourist, I never once took public transportation. As a volunteer, I quickly learned the fastest routes by Marshrutka, subway, or “votkov”. I learned to buy groceries in broken Armenian and get a language lesson out of it at the same time. I learned to give taxi drivers directions, starting with the basic “ach” and “tsakgh”, (left and right), eventually progressing to the point where I learned the word for “sign”, very useful for saying “turn left after this sign”.
My first two weeks in Armenia were in Yerevan, where I truly saw a city in transition. I stayed with my father again, but this time my time was my own. Every morning, I would walk 15 minutes to the subway or marshrutka, going to the Academy of Sciences on Baghramian, where I worked at the center for Research on Armenian Archaeology. I had become interested in the preservation of Armenian architectural monuments during my first trip to Armenia, when I saw Saghmasavank, a church from the 11th century, covered in Soviet-era graffiti. Under Dr. Samvel Karapetyan, I participated in keeping track of Armenian monuments described in English travelogues of the 18th and 19th centuries. My research was then used to compare to the explorations Dr. Karapetyan’s group had done in those regions, to assess the amount of destruction done by the Turkish authorities since the 1900s. I quickly caught on to a few of the differences between Armenian and American work culture: arrival times greatly varied, group gatherings for haikakan sourch (armenian coffee) every 2 hours, and a comraderie I’d never seen in an American office of any sort before.
I also was introduced to the vibrant repat community in Yerevan, in which I found an amazing support system and source for wonderful friendships. The most pleasant memories of Yerevan are of evenings slipping away into night at outdoor cafes, in front of the fountains at Hraparak, watching modern livese being lived in one of the oldest cities in the world.
At the beginning of June, I went to Gyumri. Mariana Mardirosian of Buenos Aires and I were the first volunteers to arrive. Initially I worked with an American organization called Earthwatch, primarily with 3 young American college students. Walking down the street, we were constantly greeted with a chorus of young voices shouting “Hello, What is your name?”. A particularly memorable evening: Marianna and I were seeking out Ankagh Hraparak (Independence Square), and my new friends Hagop and Haig, 10 and 12 years old, offered to show us the way through the hidden side streets of the oldest part of Gyumri. That was my introduction to the warmth of Gyumretsis. Every day that followed only built on that initial impression.
My best friend in Gyumri, among the locals, was a grandmother named Sranoush tatik. She managed an outdoor cafe in Ankagh Hraparak, selling pirozhki, ice cream, and upon request, telling fortunes from Armenian coffee cups. My second day at her cafe, I was greeted with a warm “Barev, Azatuhi jan! Ari, Hametses, sourch khemes!”.The capacity of Gyumretsis to remember names always astounded me. Sranoush Tatik had survived many life trials, her father dying in World War II, a childless marriage ending in divorce (very uncommon in Gyumri) and finally the earthquake, during which her home was destroyed and she was the sole survivor among her colleagues at the largest hotel in Gyumri. Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, she, like so many other Gyumretsis, was full of kindness and warmth. Nearly every person I met had lost someone during the earthquake, had struggled to put the pieces of their lives back together, and were still dealing with the challenges of living in a fledgling democracy. Some expressed bitterness and a desire to leave Armenia, while many others, including my host family, were incredibly proud of the lives they had rebuilt in their homeland.
In Gyumri, I always felt instantly accepted and embraced. Its people would often express their joy to see diasporans coming to parts of Armenia that are not as easy to live in, sometimes asking us about our backgrounds over an entire marshrutka ride back home from the city center. The encouragement of Gyumretsis was also a huge help in learning Armenian, where their warmth and patience truly was a blessing as I struggled to string sentences together, only to hear praise and pride at hearing a diasporan returning to her roots.
A frequent point of conversation between my host mother and I was my return to Armenia. She and I would agree, “Yete gords unes, amena lav tegh Hayastan e”, in short, that if you have a job, the best place in the world is Armenia. Unlike many of their friends, my host family had no desire to emigrate. Their family was an inspiration and model to me of how to build Armenia simply by leading a normal life, and raising children in the country of our ancestry. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the lessons I learned from them.