No expectations was my motto when I arrived to Armenia. I wanted to understand this country. At surface view, nothing made sense. And maybe if I hadn’t had the chance to live and work amongst the people, I would have been very frustrated. I would have been frustrated because this place I call my homeland would have stayed a mystery to me.
There have been many incidents over the past eight weeks to make me love this country. More so, there have been many incidents that have made me understand what is misunderstood about this country. One day, I decided to cook for my host family. They were reluctant at first but as I told them I’d make Italian food, the younger members of the family convinced their mom to let me make dinner. As the next day came, right after work, I rushed to the store to do grocery shopping. I was excited to make food, as it had been a while since I had had a chance to cook.
Throughout this experience, I felt that, when away from home, it was the simplest and most ordinary things that I came to miss the most. Apart from the actual process of cooking, I had missed going to grocery stores and wandering around the isles of products to compare the different goods. However, this shopping session was about to become one of the most interesting ones. As soon as I got in, this lady in her 40’s came over to help me.
“What do you need?” she asked bluntly.
“Uhm….its okay, I’m just looking around,” I replied quickly. Obviously, I was looking for spaghetti but I wanted to look around in the store. I expected her to leave but she stayed close by. I pretended to look at a jar of apricot jam and quickly, through the corner of my eye, I took a glance at her. To my surprise, she stood there, staring. Oh God! Please don’t make this any more uncomfortable than it already is, I thought. I put the jar back and stepped out of the isle as fast as I could. I found a corner I could hide but as I glanced back, she was there again.
This time, I decided to confront her. Naturally, I wasn’t going to question her on her behavior but I thought that maybe she simply wanted to help me out, so I went on and asked, “Do you have spaghetti?”
“Yes, this way,” she said with a smile, and with a hand gesture asked me to follow her. I thought, okay good. Now we’re both satisfied. She handed me a pack of spaghetti and then asked, “where are you from?”
“Vay, you are so lucky,” she said and quickly added, “Do you like our country?”
“Yes, very much,” I answered honestly.
“Where have you learned your Armenian?”
“In an Armenian school, in Canada,” I said.
“You speak very well. But you are not Armenian,” she said.
“No, I am Armenian. I come from an Armenian family.”
“So, your parents are from Armenia?”
“No, my parents are from Lebanon,” I replied.
“So you are Lebanese who speaks Armenian.”
“No, I am Armenian from outside. Ardasahmantsi eli,”I said irritated now. Later, as I thought back to this moment, I came to realize that the definition of Armenian differs from our understanding. When one says they are Armenian, it entails that the person is or the person’s parents are from Armenia.
“And what do you like about this place?”
“I like the rich culture we have and the country,” I started.
“But why?” she interrupted.
“You know, it’s true that we are born outside of Armenia but we are Armenians just like you. You are born here and your whole world is and has always been Armenian. We grow up in the non-Armenian world with the dream of Armenia. We live outside, not by choice, but we are Armenians.”
“Why are you here?” a second lady asked.
“I am a volunteer here. We come to Armenia from all over the world and we work here.”
“Oh what is there here?” asked one of the ladies who had newly arrived. “You should go back to your country. If I could, I would get out of here.”
I stood there abashed, not knowing what to answer.
“I like my country but it’s so hard to live,” a third lady declared.
“Why would you say that?” I asked the second lady. “Do you think getting out of this country would give you a better life?”
“There is nothing here. No jobs, no life, nothing. In your country, your government gives you everything.”
A fourth lady arrived at that moment, she was a bit older than the others.
“Aahh….those good old Soviet days. Everything was good. Everyone was happy,” she said dreamily. “When you graduate, the university gives you a job. Here, when young boys and girls graduate, they don’t have a job for years.”
“Who told you that?” I asked, then continued, “That’s wrong. There are so many people who graduate and don’t find a job for years in our countries. And,” I quickly added, “our universities do not find us jobs. Nowhere, as far as I know do the universities find you a job.”
“You know, when the soviets were here, everyone worked. Everyone had a job, at all times. When a young man came back from his military service, if someone saw him smoking outside his home, an officer would come and say ‘Come, I’ll give you a job,’ ” the older lady declared.
“Yes, but those days are over now. We have a free country and we have to work to give our country these benefits…make things better,” I said.
Here I was in a grocery store and suddenly, I was caught up in a bombardment of questions and odd reactions from my own people. Oddly enough, I had come across the most ordinary thoughts that crossed through these people’s minds on a daily basis. And, as much as I would have liked to be offended by my own people, I wasn’t. Instead, I finally understood the reasoning.
People seek a good life and finding it here, in Armenia, let alone in Gyumri, seemed to be impossible. They were used to the good old soviet days and the lack of jobs for the local people became frustrating.
This is my little story about Gyumri and I think a lot of things here don’t make sense. How these people survive here is an understanding that becomes hard to grasp. If there was one place where people have a reason to be permanently depressed, it is here, in Gyumri. Instead, I came to experience life with the most lively people I had ever met. The city of Gyumri, home to the once industrial center of the Soviet world, the famous Leninagan, had to see all its factories abandoned with the USSR withdrawal. The city of Gyumri, one of the most culturally thriving places in the Armenian world was to lose it all and try to get back on its feet, after the 1988 earthquake. I came to meet people who lost it all; jobs, homes, families and children. And yet, the Gyumretsi-s have found a way to smile, laugh, sing and dance again.
My conclusion through this experience came to be the fact that the people of Armenia and the Armenians from outside need each other. Being a volunteer with Birthright Armenia was great in terms of getting the truest experience of life in Armenia but it made me realize that in order to build this country, all Armenians have to put an effort and get involved. Armenia needs movement and it can only be done by moving one little rock at a time.