No más un cuento de hadas… Una realidad……

Image— Kevork Micael Nalbandyan,
Uruguay, 2012–13

Para los armenios que nacen en la diáspora dentro de una comunidad armenia la pregunta “¿Qué es Armenia?” es muy fácil de responder. Armenia es el Ararat, es el General Antranik, Kevork Chavush, Serop Ajpiur y todos sus fedaís. Es Gars, Sasún, Sepastia, Mush, Van,  Alashgerd  y Ardahan, son el millón y medio de mártires de 1915. Es el Lehmeyun, kefte, humus, Dhol, zurna, duduk y bailar kochari.

Pero, ¿Qué es la Armenia actual?.  Ah, la Armenia actual es el Lago Sevan, el Dzidzernakapert, Hor Virap, Mer taghe, la ópera y la plaza de la república, un lugar para pasarla bien.

Ir a Armenia fue algo que siempre tuve en mente. Sabía que algún día iba a ir, aunque sea a participar del campamento Hama-homenetmenagan de scouts que se hace una vez cada cuatro años. Pero por febrero de 2012, un amigo me hizo recordar la posibilidad de ir a través de Depi Hayk (Birthright Armenia) y estar en Armenia un par de meses como voluntario. Luego de unos meses y de varias charlas con amigos que ya habían participado del programa, tome la decisión. Es así que un día sin pensarlo demasiado, me senté en la computadora y llené los formularios de la página de Depi Hayk. Casi sin darme cuenta el 24 de Mayo de 2012 estaba sentado en un avión rumbo a Yerevan.

De esta forma desembarqué en una gran aventura que en un principio iba a ser de 3 meses y terminó siendo de casi 8. Es que cuando uno está ahí no puede dejar de absorber cosas y nunca es suficiente.

Mi experiencia cuenta de al menos dos grandes etapas: la primera en Gyumrí y la segunda en Yerevan.

Al llegar a Armenia me sucedió algo muy raro, sentí como que no hubiera llegado a ningún lugar especial. Esa sensación de extranjero o de turista no la sentí en ningún momento de los 8 meses. Desde un primer momento sentí como si toda mi vida hubiera vivido ahí, fue algo muy extraño pero muy lindo a la vez.

Gyumrí…

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A los pocos días de llegar me llevaron a Gyumrí. Ésta es la segunda ciudad en importancia de Armenia, queda al noroeste cerca de la frontera con Turquía.

La experiencia en esta ciudad fue increíble por la sencillez de su gente, su amabilidad y su hospitalidad. Los voluntarios que conocí allí nunca los voy a olvidar, varios de ellos son grandes amigos míos ahora. Nunca olvidaré los momentos compartidos en los viajes en mashutka o tren a Yerevan, los atardeceres que veíamos al final de la calle Paruyr Sevak, las tardes de guitarreada compartiendo historias y unos oghi. Tener la oportunidad de charlar con la familia que te alberga, escuchar sus anécdotas, sus experiencias y la forma en la que ellos ven a Armenia. Es difícil mencionar una anécdota en particular el conjunto de todo lo que hacíamos ahí lo hizo especial.

Yerevan…

A partir del cuarto mes me radiqué en Yerevan, y puedo decir que es una experiencia totalmente diferente a Gyumrí. 

Está muy bueno estar en la capital. Continue reading

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Post-Armenia Blues

Nathalie Kazandjian aka Nat K
(Canada, AVC ‘ 12)


The ‛Welcome Home Natty’ poster along with friends and family were what greeted me as I made my way past the Arrival gates of the Montreal Trudeau Airport. In that instant, I felt pretty good about coming home. However, as the days went by, the post-Armenia blues violently kicked in as soon as I found myself doing the same old things I used to do. Suddenly, things that seemed so familiar felt foreign and strange. It was a whole new culture shock but it was real and unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about it. The problem was not coming home to friends and family. The problem itself was leaving Armenia. For the little bit that I was back, I couldn’t even look at my photos nor talk about it for fear of being overcome with even more heartbreak and anguish than I already felt. I missed everything and everyone that belonged to my life in Armenia.

Before I know it, I found myself longing for Armenia. I missed waking up every morning to hearing my host mother say “ Parev parev garmir arev siroon jan”. I missed walking down 58 district to catch the marshrutka, 100 drams in hand and giving my regular Parev to the locals. I missed walking home from work and being greeted by the cutest little munchkins from my neighborhood showering me with hugs and kisses. I missed finishing the night off with a nice cup of MacCoffee alongside my host sisters while watching Armenian soap operas. I missed staying up with Nvartig, my baby host sister, till late at night drawing, coloring, playing cards, checkers, chess and teaching her English. I missed going to Ponchig Monchig and ordering a ridiculous amount of food. I missed going to the khorovadz place near the OLA center and engaging into a 45 minute conversation with the cook each and every time. I missed getting a ridiculous amount of daily texts and reminders from Allegra. I missed joining my Armenian brothers and sisters over weekend excursions. I missed running in the SAS supermarket and yelling like a crazy person “where’s the Ttvaser ?” before boarding our marshrukta to head back home. As well, as Heeng dzap, Marshrukta 9, besties crew, whatever your face, tracking down wifi, Le Cafe and Sevan’s inspirational speeches among many other things.

The desire to connect to people and the joy of making the connection was life affirming. The physical intensity of the excursions was invigorating. The time walking alone, listening to my own footsteps, sitting in the marshrukta watching the sunset, gazing at the stars was refreshing. Most of all, I long for the way I felt when I was in the Motherland. I felt alive, free, inspired and grateful. Man oh man does Armenia have a way with you. Each and every day there was a goal and an accomplishment that could be measured in different ways: in kilometers, in hugs, in the number of times I laughed out loud.

Although I was only gone for two months and while nothing has changed at home, everything has changed within me. Living in Armenia, gave me a deep appreciation of my life – where I live, where I work, my family and my friends. It also made me appreciate things that we too often take for granted such as the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, weeping eyes, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

To travel to Armenia is to truly take a journey within yourself. When we leave the comfort of home and everything that we have grown to be accustomed to, we often live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry. We tend to surrender ourselves by becoming much more accepting to the twists, turns and little surprises that life has to offer. I came to Armenia searching for answers. Instead, I left in search of better questions. Sometimes, the unexpected is just what is needed to put life into perspective.

So here I am, back to my same old routine of stop and go, impatiently waiting to graduate just to start a new adventure. All the while feeling nostalgic about my time in Armenia which can feel heavier than the far too many pounds gained abroad.

When I think about it, perhaps the post-Armenia blues is something you can never truly let go of. For it that where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.

To sign off, I simply cannot say goodbye to those whom I have grown to love, for the memories we have made will last a lifetime and never a goodbye. None of this would have been possible without Birthright Armenia & Armenian Volunteer Corps. For those of you who are thinking of joining the program, I encourage you to take a leap and go for it. Armenia 2012 always in my heart.

Was It All A Dream?

Anne-Marie Manoukian
(Canada, AVC ’12)

If you had asked me how I was feeling the day before leaving for Armenia for the first time, I would not have known what and how to answer. Birthright Armenia had been a plan of mine since I was 18 – when I first heard about it. I was finally old enough and ready to embark on this journey of a lifetime, but the butterflies in my stomach were increasing exponentially as my boarding time was getting closer and closer.
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Needless to say, I did not know what to expect; therefore, I told myself not to have any expectations and to go in with a clear mind… a very difficult task for someone as paranoid and detail-oriented as myself. After an excruciating 20-hour long trip to Yerevan, I finally made it. After years of hearing and learning about my homeland, I finally had my feet on Armenian soil. It was an incredible feeling. Sure, I was already feeling homesick, constantly thinking about my family and friends back home, but I was ready, ready for what I knew would be the single most amazing experience of my life.

Was I wrong? No.

One of the questions I was asked near the end of my stay was: “do you regret volunteering in Gyumri?” My immediate answer was no. Absolutely not. Gyumri opened my eyes to many things. It made me appreciate life much more. I met some of the most remarkable and fascinating people, but most of all, Gyumri introduced me to my host family – a family so close to one another, so pure, a family that reminded me so much of my own. Of course, Gyumri wasn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I mean, Bonchik Monchik, trying to find lettuce for 3 weeks, our sheer amazement when we would find automatic doors, a place with air conditioning, or WiFi, how can you replace such things? Gyumri definitely had… character.

Thinking back though, the reason I left part of my heart in Gyumri is because of what it symbolizes for me and the fact that this is where I met many of the people that have changed my life one way or another. The day we said our emotional goodbyes to Rafi & Tamar (queue song), we agreed that we would all see each other in the next year, so start planning reunions, people! (Allegra, your room is ready and waiting for you. That reminds me… have you gone grocery shopping yet?)

We got to know each other the most during the excursions, which were adventures of their own. Each and every single one of those trips taught me something valuable; however, it was during the Artsakh trip where I learned not only about my homeland, Armenians, and other volunteers, but also about myself. I learned to do things I never thought I had the courage to do, to feel things I never thought I could feel, and to instantly connect to a place I never thought would speak to me so powerfully.

“Just do whatever you can do – take every opportunity that’s offered to you because if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll regret it.” This was one of the most useful pieces of advice a fellow volunteer gave me very early on, and he was right.  That’s probably the reason why I jumped at the opportunity to spend my last weekend on a two-day camping trip. I knew we would return late on Sunday night (which we did) and I would be a complete zombie travelling back to Montreal (which I was) since my flight was on the following day at 5 am, but it was definitely worth it. One of the best memories I have is sitting around the campfire on Saturday night and not saying a word. It wasn’t my happiest moment, but it was one of the most unique. During the course of these two days, many of the friendships I made over my journey were strengthened and solidified and I knew that this certainly wasn’t the end; it was actually the beginning of something great.

I’ve been back in Montreal for a while now and it’s the smaller things I think of that make me smile, laugh, and cry at times: the Jesus walk, learning that there are 17 provinces in Canada and a city in Toronto named Annandale, watching the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics with my loving host dad until 3 am, Marshutka 9, Evelyn’s bottomless stomach, being carried and thrown into a pool by three men – guaranteeing no escape, sangria in a pot, a flying cow, late-night life conversations during the marshutka rides back to Gyumri (with our famous drivers, of course), Allegra’s glasses – and just plain self, my kids from Meghvik chanting “Anna-Marie” as they walk me to the marshutka stop, a four-hour hike that in fact, WAS THREE, OK? “I won’t stop ‘til the cows come home!” (Arman, this is where I would insert our famous 3 words), and my very last ride back to Yerevan… not much was said, but I can’t thank Asq enough for just being there.

I still think it was all a dream. It couldn’t have been real; I couldn’t have done all that… but I really did. And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.Image

It’s No Longer a Dream

Jeannot Kekedjian
(Lebanon, AVC ’12)

Image All the people I know in Lebanon find it annoying to hear me talking all the time about Armenia, and Gyumri in particular. They say it’s exaggerated to talk that much about my Armenian experience with Birthright Armenia; after all it’s just a 9-weeks trip : you’ll eat some pork, get drunk, and probably make few more friends who will like your statuses on facebook and send you birthday wishes once a year. That’s what they say, but NO. It’s more than a trip, it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me; it’s a journey of self discovery as the logo says, and like they told us on the first day we got to Armenia, once our volunteering period comes to the end, we’ll want to stay more, we won’t want to leave. First I didn’t understand what they were talking about, now I do. Even though I’ve been in Armenia before and saw almost all the touristic places, I thought this trip would be a not-so-exciting trip since I already saw “everything”; I wasn’t obviously looking for my roots since I live in an Armenian community, and the only thing I was expecting was getting some experience after living with a strange family in the same house, volunteering in a town I didn’t know much about, meeting some friends from different backgrounds. But everything went beyond my expectations…

I landed in Yerevan on a Friday, and stayed there with a family for a couple of days, and then went to Gyumri to meet my host family. It’s weird to stay for 8 weeks with people you don’t know anything about; it’s weird and challenging at the same time: living with people you don’t know, sharing the same bathroom, having breakfast on the same table, seeing the family members with their sleepers, no makeup, and no fancy clothes, just them. I got to know all the family members, chat with them, and cook for them (yes I cooked for them, now stop laughing!), help them with the house work when needed. I started telling jokes to my new family from the very first day: some of them didn’t work, but everything was good, I was open to them, and they liked it. Even though they told us at the Birthright Armenia   office not to talk about the 1988 earthquake in front of them because they’re still traumatized from that sad event, my host mother (I call her “Mayrig”) came to my bedroom on my second day, showed me her children’s old photos and talked to me about the earthquake, how she stayed with her 20 days old son in the ruins for four days, how she lost one foot when she was still 20 years old, and stayed in the intensive care for more than five months, with severe damage all over her body. I’m not telling you all this so that you feel sorry for her, I’m just telling you all that so that you appreciate every single person you meet in Gyumri: whoever sees this amazing woman would never think she’s been through all this until they see her walking slowly, not being able to walk long distances for more than 23 years.Image

With Armenian Volunteer Corps I worked in two different hospitals (Austrian Children Hospital and Akhurian maternity hospital), took the farm option (living and working in a farm in Armavir for 5 consecutive days) and taught French to a local girl from Gyumri. I had fun, and tried to make my jobsites fun places to be: making jokes while the main surgeon is doing a hysterectomy, laughing to a small child who is crying before taking a blood sample from him, singing to the cow while milking it, playing Charles Aznavour songs when teaching French. I think that there’s always a funny way to do everything, you just have to find it. Almost everybody was happy to work with me, meet me or hang out with me, not because I’m an amazing person (maybe I am, I don’t know…), but because I lived like them, thought like them, tried to make them happier because I understood that inexplicable sorrow in their eyes, I was one of them! It’s only when you understand them that you become one of them…

My 9 weeks passed quickly, and it was already my last day in Gyumri. My host family cried, I cried, everybody cried, even the sky cried that morning on my way to the train station. My life before Gyumri wouldn’t be the same after it. My life before Birthright Armenia wouldn’t be the same after it. I had so many things in my heart that only volunteers in Gyumri would understand. It’s different, I wish I could explain. Even Yerevan is nothing comparing to “how great Gyumri is”. Yes, that’s how amazing it was, it still is, here in my heart… Image

I still remember those unforgettable moments with all the birthrighters and AVC-ers during the Saturday excursions, the hang-outs in Gyumri, meeting locals and having interesting conversations with them. I still remember all those magnificent days and nights, when we were tired and sleepless all the time but we were happy. I remember Analia’s hugs and “hbeeh” (the sheep version), Anahit’s angelic face, Anna’s “hbeh anna jan, hbeeeeh”, Tarverdi ruining my photos, Takuhi’s innocent face, Rigina’s “esbes paner”, sharing the same bed with Vahe (ThankS God nothing happened that night) , Shushanik and the way she moves her eyebrows, Natalie Kamajian’s voice and the way she smiles, Khoren’s “lav chi”, Armen Adamian’s fictional duduk, Evelyna’s accent when she’s speaking English, Allegra’s sad eyes (Allegravan), Asqanaz’s WHATEVER, Jenya’s beautiful face, Nat Ch. getting lost in Yerevan, Nat D’s “kidtsaaar”, Fiona’s british accent, Nanor and the farm memories, Maral’s “OUFF” and “jamu kani e?”, Manouks’ amazing smile (and hair), Kevork’s “look at the moon”, Alex Avakian’s “JAAAAAAAAAAN hey jan ghapama”, Ana and Joe, Ani’s “What’s worse than finding a worm in an apple? Holocaust”, Vartan and the way he speaks Armenian, Tate’s tiny voice and beautiful smile, Elza’s shiny face, Nat K’s “mon beau sapin ♫”, Waziryan’s “hebbeeeeh”, Shogher and her family, best moments and conversations with Hagop (the best!), Evelyn’s funniness and “Kidtsaaaaar”, Steph’s beautiful eyes and dresses, Richard’s funny comments about random topics, Hrag’s kindness, the lovely couple Armen and Taleen, Souren the best guide, Karina’s “naynananay”, Araz and his guitar, William’s hair and questions, Vanalia’s “SIT DOWN”, Zofia and me starting jokes about people having black hair, Zhang my photo man, Jobi cursing in Arabic, Yuri always being late, Sabrina excited about every single thing in Armenia, Valeria falling twice in Jdrduz, Melissa losing her mind on the Khntsoreski bridge, Arman, Raffi-Joe, Meghrig, Gaidzag, George, Arpa, Shogheeg, Lori, Anahit, Nora, Simon, Seto, Manuk, Nora, Julietta, Arev, Sergey posig for photos at Eden, Raphael and the mission impossible with the Portuguese and google translate, Gabe dancing like a boss, Tamar B’s amazing laughs, Nare singing patriotic songs, Mariana following my smile with her camera, Diana being on silent mode, Tania’s young spirit, Sevan’s statements that almost no one listens to, Vahram’s jokes and crazy drives, I even remember people I met only once (Achod, Raffi, Vasken) or people I’ve never met (Siroon, Tamar) but heard a lot about. I remember all the locals I met in Yerevan (Mary, Karo) and Gyumri (Alvard, Gor, Araksya, all the host families I met). I made lots of friends, not only to have them on facebook, but to have them here in my heart, here with me all the time. I love you Birthrighters and AVC-ers (Zof, Vanya and Zhang, this is especially for you!). I know that those names and words would sound unfamiliar to lots of people here, but here’s a thing: When you come to Armenia with Birthright next year, you’ll have your own secret stories, friends names no one else would know, your own inside jokes, you’ll have your own moments, and I’ll read them all in your blog on BR/DH’s website!

See? It wasn’t that hard to become a real Armenian, a real gyumresti. But all this would be impossible if I didn’t come to Armenia with Birthright Armenia, and I truly thank them for this great opportunity. My second trip was completely different from the first one: I wasn’t a tourist now. I used to buy things from SAS, count my money before spending it, cook for my host family, take the “marshrutka” for being cheaper, walk long distances to avoid spending “unnecessary” money, eat in cheap restaurants, wake up early to go to work even though I know that it’s for free and I could (but didn’t) work less and put extra hours on my timesheets. Now I know that when I go back to Armenia, I won’t only visit places, but I’ll mainly visit people there: friends from Birthright Armenia, locals, relatives and co-workers why not. Now I know that when I go back to Armenia, there’s someone waiting for me: a mom, who lets me in when I knock the door, a friend, who listens to me when I need someone, a co-worker, who makes my work hours less stressful. Now I know that Armenia is no longer a dream, it’s MY home, the place where I belong, where I found hope.

HOPE.
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Thank you.

Fiona Greig, AVC ’12
(United Kingdom)

Dear Birthright Armenia/Depi Hayk and AVC,I cannot count the number of times I have tried to sit down and write this final blog entry. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. I clung on to my time in Armenia through friends who were still there and then from my dad and aunt’s second trip out there. It felt very strange to see photos of them visiting places where I had been just a few weeks before. At first I was jealous but now I am just excited for the next time and hopeful that it will be the whole family.It is now 2 months and 2 days since I left and I am finally ready to finish this blog (for now!) I agonised over how to sum up my time in Armenia in a little post like this. What did I want to say? List my highlights, lessons learnt, friends made… but there are simply too many. It’s the same problem I have every time somebody asks me how my summer was. I freeze, my mouth gets dry and a million brightly coloured images flash through my mind. And then I normally come out with something stunningly eloquent like “It was good”, “really good” or “amazing” if I’m feeling particularly articulate. One of my friends asked me if it had been worth “giving up” my whole summer for. I was stunned into silence (rare). The idea that I had given anything up was utterly incomprehensible to me. Yet even then, as I thought of all the myriad reasons why I would not trade this summer for all the cognac in Armenia, I couldn’t find a way of making it make sense to someone else. So I’ve given up. I come out with random stories and anecdotes now and then but mostly I look at pictures, skype when I can and try to remember everything.

So finally I have decided to stop over thinking this whole thing and just say what I really want to say.

THANK YOU.

Thank you to the staff and benefactors of Birthright Armenia/Depi Hayk and Armenian Volunteer Corps for giving me the opportunity to discover a new country, a new culture and a new language. And thank you for leaving me wanting more. For giving me time to work out what this bewitching and complicated place means to me.

Thank you for the beautiful, crazy and unexpected excursions which were beyond my wildest dreams. For the wonderful language classes, the educational forums and the sociable havaks. For the varied, challenging and inspirational workplaces.

Thank you for letting us let our hair down at the weekends (and sorry for how wholeheartedly some of us took this offer up…!)

Thank you for introducing me to a new family who not only welcomed me into their lives with open arms and hearts but also had my father and aunt round for dinner during their trip!

Thank you for introducing me to my brothers and sisters from all around the world who I never knew I had and now can’t imagine living without. And to those of you who told me I was welcome to come visit, watch out!

And finally, thank you for giving me this moment on my return to England. I was able to sit with my incredible grandmother who has never been to Armenia in her life and show her my photographs, tell her my stories, answer her questions… and show her my tattoo :s

This is the thing I want to thank you for most. It’s not something I can put in words so here are some photos.

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