Katherine Kalter, AVC ‘12
Since my family left for America over a hundred years ago no one has made it back to Armenia. Being the first one to make the trek to the homeland I could in no way prepare myself for the journey ahead. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers I had never heard the Armenian language spoken nor had I sampled any Armenian cuisine before arriving in the country for the very first time. Upon landing at Zvarnots my whole world began to feel surreal. The mixture of exhaustion from the flights earlier that day and the overwhelming fear and excitement that came with finally being in a place I had been dying to visit since a young age was enough to do me in, and after making it to my temporary housing in Yerevan I quickly fell asleep. The next few days were a blur; nothing felt real. The noticeable lack of English and westernized culture made Yerevan difficult for me to get used to in the short time I was there, but it wasn’t until finally making it to my permanent homestay in Gyumri that I just about lost it. If Yerevan seemed strange and unfamiliar to me, Gyumri was like being in a completely different world. There was absolutely nothing even remotely familiar for me to latch on to. I had stepped so far out of my comfort zone I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to find it again. Every day I woke up and I asked myself the same questions: “Why am I here? Was this a mistake? What was I thinking?!” And every day I counted down, “Only X many days left,” I’d tell myself, as if it was some sort of a comfort to keep reminding myself how much longer I had bound myself to my own personal anxiety-ridden nightmare. Around the third week I had falsely expected the culture shock to subside so I would be able to truly begin enjoying my time in Armenia, but it didn’t happen. I still woke up and had a tough time preparing myself for the day ahead, but I wasn’t about to give up. I had always wanted to travel to Armenia and while I was having a less-than-ideal time there, I was going to stick it out until the end, because I knew if I didn’t I would regret it.
It wasn’t until about a month into my time in Armenia that I really began to fall in love with the experience. I have my fellow volunteers to thank for that. Never in my life have I met and connected with people so quickly. The Marshutka 9, Gyumri Prom, late night escapades around Yerevan, they will always be what I remember when I look back on my time in Armenia. And I can’t thank the staff enough for arranging the most amazing trips possible. Whether we were shoved in the back of a cattle truck going 45 down the side of a mountain, or we were chowing down on a traditional Armenian village feast, I couldn’t imagine a better way to experience the country. My last weeks in Armenia were the best weeks of my life. And while by the end of my journey I was exhausted and missing home, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving behind what I had finally found. As my last days approached and I slowly started saying good-bye to the people who unknowingly changed my life forever, I was reminded exactly why I wanted to come to Armenia in the first place: I wanted to meet others who shared a very simple, yet important, trait with me; I wanted to know what being Armenian meant to others so I could discover what it meant to me.
Now that I’m back in America I often find myself dreaming of being back in the homeland with everyone, just sitting outside at Le Café planning our upcoming weekend misadventures, and then I realize where I am and remember that I will never be able to experience it again. While I plan on travelling back to Armenia in the future, it will never be the way it was with Birthright Armenia. I will never have my first time in Armenia again. And while I’m glad to, hopefully, not have to re-experience quite the same amount of fear and shock as I did this past summer, I can’t help but miss my days spent there. I look back on my time in Armenia with nothing but fondness; always wishing for just one more day. One more drink at Red Café, one more night on the hill, one more overly-cramped marshutka ride, one more night in Hayastan.