Four months ago, I arrived at Zvartnots Airport in Yerevan, Armenia. I wandered down the walkway into a sparse white room and approached one of a series of square glass windows that lined the far wall. The customs official behind the window, a middle-aged Armenian man, spoke only Armenian. Speaking Armenian would be my most difficult and most rewarding challenge in Armenia. After a few unsuccessful attempts at communicating, I convinced a young, Armenian American women, whom was standing in line one window to my right, to translate the remainder of the encounter. When the business end of the conversation was complete, she asked me with blunt honesty: “Are you Armenian? You don’t speak Armenian, why did you come here?”
At that point in time, I did not have any answers to her questions. The internal monologue in my head was skeptical. What was I doing seven thousand miles away from home in a country I knew almost nothing about? Her questions inspired me to begin thinking deeply about my purpose in the country. I thanked the women and left the airport.
Living for four months in Armenia was an incredible experience. The brilliant blue water of Sevan, the picturesque icy forests of early-winter Dilijan, and the breathtaking tree-filled mountains of Artsakh will stay with me long after my trip. Equally valuable were the everyday experiences. Armenians in Armenia, both diasporan and locals, are some of the warmest people I have ever met. I will never forget the kindness of the Grigoryans. Ashot, Armine, Karo, and Galust welcomed me into their home and their family, something for which I am deeply grateful. All these experiences changed me in a way that I struggled to clearly define until after an early morning conversation on my return to Zvartnots.
I met Rosiz, the driver of a small yellow cab in Yerevan, on a snowy morning two weeks before Armenian Christmas.
ROSIZ: Why are you going to the airport son? Where are you leaving to?
ME: I’m going back to school in L.A.
ROSIZ: Oh, L.A… my son lives in L.A. I haven’t heard from him or my grandkids in years… I miss them. Tried to go there last year… after my wife died, but I couldn’t get a green card. (Approaching Zvartnots)
Have you seen the new airport? That’s our new terminal. It’s beautiful, new, modern. When you come back, that’s where you’ll land. See you soon.
Speaking with Rosiz clarified the significance of my four months in Armenia. With Rosiz and other Armenians since, I have felt an immediate connection—from living in the country, speaking the language, meeting the people, which I would have never imagined prior to my trip. Despite his tragic life experiences, this same connection sustained Rosiz’s pride in Zvartnots and the accomplishments of his fellow Armenians. Finally, this same connection and Armenians like Rosiz, whom in the face of tragedy more strongly embrace their identity, give me hope for the long-term perseverance of the Armenian culture. These Armenians will overcome the threats of assimilation, of divisions, of economic and political strife, and will preserve the Armenian identity and Armenia as a country far into the future.