Mis conocimientos del idioma armenio y mi abuelo

Cristina Nerguizian
Uruguay, 2012
(For English, please scroll)

Mis conocimientos del idioma armenio y mi abuelo
A la memoria de mi abuelo, Coco…

Es cierto, no soy una experta en el idioma armenio. ¡Qué digo, ¿experta?! Ni siquiera soy un hablante de nivel básico, o tampoco soy capaz de leer  trabajos o notas periodísticas y muchísimo más lejos estoy aún de poder escribirlos.

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Sin embargo, el haber aprendido el idioma en mis meses como voluntaria de Birthright Armenia me ha enriquecido no sólo desde el punto de vista lingüístico, personal, y un largo etcétera, sino que me ha acercado a comprender sentimientos, costumbres, hábitos, que anteriormente veía con simpatía, bien de cerca, pero no llegaba a comprender en su más profunda esencia. El haberlo continuado desde casa a no hizo sino reforzar esta comprensión. A esto le sumo la parte práctica: tengo la capacidad de comunicarme rudimentariamente.

Puedo pecar de reiterativa con el tema, sin dudas tengo a más de uno bastante cansado de escucharme hablar sobre Armenia. Si, Birthright Armenia me dio muchas posibilidades que yo supe aprovechar, y por eso las comparto. Pero hay algo que tengo guardado conmigo que quiero compartir: mi experiencia al regreso, de intercambio con mis abuelos Coco y Alicia, y en particular, mi conexión con mi abuelo en sus últimos días.

Mientras el abuelo estuvo internado hablaba conmigo en armenio. Es más, no me respondía cuando le hablaba en español: “abuelo, ¿querés agua?…Agua, abuelo, dale, tomá un poquito…” y no se movía ni asentía. Hasta que en un momento le dije ya como último recurso, y como con insistente desesperación: “Abuelo, ջուր… մի քիչ… չես ուզում? ջուր?” y recibí su respuesta mediante su asentimiento. ¡Fue un logro!

También hablaba sobre el sanatorio y las enfermeras y estas por supuesto no lo entendían. Ese hecho nos transformó en cómplices  y nos transportó a una dimensión, a un lugar en el que estábamos sólo nosotros, y solamente por haber podido acompañarlo con mi complicidad, me hizo pensar en cómo valió la pena haber aprendido armenio. Fueron días difíciles y tristes también, pero estos recuerdos siempre me arrancan una sonrisa.

Y cuando llegó lo más triste, a pesar del dolor, sentí una paz y satisfacción al saber que él hubiera estado orgulloso de mí, porque las palabras que dijeron sobre su persona el Arzobispo y sus compañeros, mal o bien, las comprendí. Comprendí que fueron muchas las personas que vieron en él a ese hombre maravilloso, incansable trabajador, referente para muchos, incluida yo. Y todo lo dijeron en Armenio, y yo lo comprendí. Sí, lo comprendí como pude.

Hoy Coco se volvió invisible, quizás esté tomando un oghí con más de uno por ahí ahora…

Sólo quiero compartir que, mi aprendizaje del idioma armenio fue más que un aumento de nomenclatura en mi cabeza… Me hizo mejor, porque me hizo más cercana a mis abuelos. Y de ellos sólo pueden surgir cosas buenas.

Montevideo, octubre de 2013.

My knowledge of the Armenian language and my grandfather

In memory of my grandfather, Coco …

Admittedly, I’m no expert in the Armenian language. What am I saying, what expert? I’m not even an entry level speaker, I can’t read journalistic work and I am very far away from being able to write fluently.

However, having learned to speak the language in my months as a volunteer with Birthright Armenia has enriched me not only from the point of view of grammar or vocabulary but I have come to understand feelings, customs, habits, that I previously viewed with sympathy, but did not understand in their deepest essence. To this I add the practical part: I have the ability to communicate on basic level.

I can be too repetitive with the subject and sometimes I am tired of hearing myself talking about Armenia. And if Birthright Armenia gave me all these opportunities, then these are meant to be shared. But there is something that I have kept with me and I want to share now: my experience of  return—the exchange with my grandparents, Coco and Alicia, and especially my connection with my grandfather on his last days.

My grandfather was determined to speak to me in Armenian. Thus, he did not respond when I spoke in Spanish. “Grandpa, do you want water? … Agua, abuelo, dale, tomá un poquito” and he wouldn’t move or nod. Then as my last resort and with insistent despair, I asked, “Պապիկ, ջուր … մի քիչ … չե՞ս ուզում: Ջու՞ր” and then I received his confirmation. It was an achievement!

He also spoke about the hospital and the nurses and most of these I could not understand. That time we were transported to a new dimension, to a place where it was just us. Being able to share my compassion, made ​​me think about how much having learned Armenian was worth. Those days were difficult and sad too, but these memories always bring tears and a smile.

And it was the saddest thing, despite the pain, I felt peace and satisfaction knowing that he would have been proud of me, because the words that the Archbishop and his companions said about him, rightly or wrongly, I could understand. I understood that, like me, there were many people who saw him as that wonderful man, a tireless worker. And everything was said in Armenian, and I understood. I understood as I could.

Today Coco has become invisible…

Just want to share that learning the Armenian language for me is more than new words in my head… It is a bigger thing, because it made me closer to my grandparents. And of them only good things can arise.

Montevideo, October 2013.

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I came, I saw, I conquered

Nairi SharabNairi Sharabkhanian
Canada, 2013

He scrunched his nose and raised one eyebrow.

“Why would you leave your rich life to come volunteer here?”

I was shocked. No one has ever referred to my life as “rich” and besides that, this was the first time someone was questioning my decision to come to my homeland for a 14-week volunteer service.

I sighed and replied, “Why not?”

One of the greatest difficulties in my life has been my identity. I am an Armenian living in a non-Armenian country, how could that be? I have devoted my entire life to teaching my Canadian “odar” friends about my culture and my people. I feel like it is my duty to return to my homeland and share my skills and talents with my own people.

“Are you getting paid?” he asked. “No,” I said. “You’re crazy for working here and not getting paid.”

Did this man really think I would only come here to get money?  “I understand life is difficult here,” I replied. “But every country has its issues. I’d rather live, with some struggles, in my homeland than in any other country. “

I volunteer because I care, because I’m human, and because this was the idea that I was brought up with in my household. I didn’t come here to change the country or the people. I came here to change myself, change my views of Armenia. The best way to understand Armenia is to live here. That’s why about 8 months ago I decided it was time for me to come and learn about my country and applied to Birthright Armenia, which ended up being an experience of a lifetime.

I CAME to Armenia to be with my people. By the end of my stay, I SAW Armenia from a completely different perspective than when I initially began my journey. Furthermore, I CONQUERED my fears and did something that only few Armenians have done in my community.

My four months in Armenia has been a journey. Feelings of confusion, frustration and being overwhelmed almost all the time became commonplace. I conquered another fear that I discovered in Armenia, my own journey of self-discovery. Although I was in that taxi for only 5 minutes it felt like hours. A million emotions were triggered by this man’s comments and soon I found myself wanting to tell him to keep driving me around so I can continue to tell him how lucky he is to live in a country that belongs to him.

Nairi Sharab_2

Changing Ideas and Realities

Karine Vann
USA, 2013

My ideas of Armenia before this summer were informed by a picture that was far from complete. In this picture, Armenia was a small, socio-economically disadvantaged country that 100 years ago suffered a terrible and devastating genocide, but despite it all celebrated a rich cultural heritage. Other than that, the ideas I held were fragmented and vague.

But the funny thing about ideas is it doesn’t take a lot for one to propel you to action. I think even just the existence of a program like Birthright Armenia is a testament to the fact that for most diasporans, regardless of their involvement in the community, their idea of Armenia – however vague – is quite powerful.

Pre-Birthright Armenia:

My sister and I, despite being given very Armenian names, grew up in a household where Armenian was never spoken to us. But the idea of my Armenian-ness remained a part of my identity as a child largely due to my mother, having been born and raised in Yerevan, realizing on some level that it was important not to let us forget we’re Armenian.  But I lived (like many diasporans I have met since my BR experience) a dual cultural reality.

Growing up, I had on one hand Armenian summer camps, Armenian Sunday School (where I learned a little about the language and a lot about the genocide), and Armenian family gatherings. On the other hand, I had my completely American school and social life, where homogeneity and ‘American-ness’ is kind of key to fitting in. In the end, my American reality won the cultural tug-of-war and once I grew old enough to make decisions for myself about how I spent my time outside of school, Armenian-related activities and events faded into the distance. It wasn’t until the confusing and soul-searching gap years after graduating college that I seriously revisited the Armenian idea and after much internal debate, purchased a one-way ticket to Armenia.

The few weeks before I left, the reality of my decision set in. I started to recognize that my ideas about Armenia were shaky and ungrounded and I became filled with anxiety. I tried to prepare myself for the real Armenia by asking others what it might be like.

Most influential was source #1, my mother. Logically, she should be a reliable source – she grew up in Yerevan. Though my mother’s work keeps her involved in Armenian events and politics, it has been decades since she lived there and the ideas she expressed to me about Armenia failed to prepare me for the reality – I might even say some of her ideas set me back a few steps (a prime example being her assurances that lacking any language skills whatsoever wouldn’t “really inconvenience me that much,” and Armenian “isn’t that difficult to learn”).

Another cause for anxiety came from source #2, my cousin.  At the time, I wasn’t aware of this small, but very important fact, that she has never actually been to Armenia. Not only did listening to her ideas about Armenia not prepare me for my trip, but her negative perceptions on what life would be like contradicted those conveyed by my mother and I was left confused and unsure what/who to believe.

And then there’s source #3, my sister, who did a 4 week Habitat for Humanity program 6 years ago and, to the horror of my mother, came back with a tattoo of the Armenian flag on her chest. I think this one speaks for itself.

Essentially, I realized that while it’s important to take others’ accounts into consideration, listening to or reading about others’ impressions and ideas is no substitute for real experience. Armenia is made up of much more than the ideas of its inhabitants and visitors – it’s a very real place, with real beauty  to be admired and real issues to be confronted. No idea can fully prepare you for the reality, the reality you make for yourself.

During and Post-Birthright Armenia:

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My first few weeks living in Armenia were incredibly humbling. I won’t even hesitate to say that not speaking the language was the main reason. One example: Every day on my way to and from the metro station, I walked by a large shookah where vendors sold fresh fruits and vegetables. Every day, I wanted to buy a bag of fresh strawberries on my own to bring home to my host family (who was absolutely wonderful, by the way). It wasn’t until day 17 that I gathered the courage to do so — believe it or not, this was a huge milestone for me.

Another milestone occurred much later and much more gradually, when, to my pleasant surprise, getting ripped off by taxi drivers became a less frequent occurrence. There were plenty more milestones — far too many, in fact, to list in this blog.

By the time I left Armenia, Continue reading

In Love

Tatevik Movsisyan
USA, 2013
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This summer I fell in love… with Karabagh
In love with the luscious green interweaving with war torn buildings.
In love with the flowers growing out of concrete.
In love with the view of Stepanakert from Shushi.
In love with the magical jontik wanterfall.
In love with the spirit of its beautiful people.
In love with the kid that sang “karabaghtsi” at Gandsasar with so much emotion and heart that it brought me to tears.
In love with the kids hanging out of their windows at the camp in Gandsasar asking if we’d be back tomorrow.

This summer I fell in love…with Yerevan
In love with purple bus number 28 that arrived at 9:15 every morning with enough standing room to get me to work.
In love with the bus driver that smiled and said “khntrem” (you’re welcome) when I said thank you every morning.
In love with the grandpa and granddaughter who got off the same stop as me every morning and walked together hand in hand, telling jokes and laughing joyously.
In love with the breathtaking view of the city from the top of Cascade.
In love with all-you-can-eat crawfish at Station pub.
In love with girls nights with Vernashen wine and cheese.

This summer I fell in love… with Birthright Armenia
In love with all of the people I met.
In love with the nights we sang and danced like there was no tomorrow.
In love with the hats, paneer, pamidor sandwiches we devoured on excursions.
In love with Sanahin, Haghpat, Ohanavank and every other place I would have never ventured if it wasn’t for Birthright.
In love with the office and everyone sitting in it making the magic happen.
In love with the serious security guard who makes wooden boats behind the counter.
In love with the idea of being reintroduced to a city I thought I knew. Thank You Birthright Armenia for showing me how much there is to love in a country where everyone is looking for a reason to leave. My list could go on forever. 

A Student of Armenia

Matthew Nazarian
USA, AVC 2013

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The first thing I learned in Armenia was that, though I’m ethnically 100% Armenian, for all intents and purposes I identify as 100% American. I felt very American, even among Armenian-Americans.  Despite that, I do not feel like my experience was less valuable or less enjoyable. My trip to Armenia became an opportunity to gain clarity on some of the most important differences concerning identity between American and Armenian cultures.  This article will not be a story of an American boy learning what it is to be Armenian but rather becoming a student of the country of Armenia.

At first, I actually had a lot of trouble understanding why people cared so deeply about ethnicity at all.  My own ethnicity had always been something that was in the background. My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents instilled in me the values of respect, hard work, and hospitality, but the idea that these values might be Armenian in nature rarely entered the equation for me.  My parents chose to teach me these values, and I chose to accept them as my own. Overly simplistic?  Yes.  But during my trip to Armenia I found this focus on the individual to be much more American than Armenian. 

In America, we like to view identity in terms of the individual.  Suggesting that I am one way because I am Armenian and my friend is another because he is Italian is largely discouraged. It is difficult to make generalizations in a public forum without angering people.  We don’t like generalizations here, because we feel they undermine our individuality.  So, if we are being good politically correct Americans, when we talk about a person and the way that he behaves, we will mention how his parents chose to bring him up or how he chose to live his live, but we will not make generalizations about how his ethnicity may have affected his values.

I am not championing this philosophy or saying it is exclusively western.  I am not even claiming that most Americans refrain from making these generalizations; however, I think it is hard to deny that from an ideological standpoint the focus on the individual and individual liberty is as pervasive in the United States as it is in any other country on the planet. In America we have, above all, a shared belief in the value of individual freedom, and this ethos is used as the justification for virtually every movement in the United States.  Whether it is gay rights, the right to own guns, the outlawing of guns, or a justification for war, there is always the argument made that the initiative will in some way preserve or improve the freedom of this country and its citizens. 

Economically, this ideology manifests as a culture of capitalism and on a micro level, a culture of supporting oneself.  For the most part, it is looked down upon in America to live with your parents after your early twenties, while in Armenia it is acceptable even into your thirties. Personally, I always thought that this difference was due mainly to the lack of opportunity for people in Armenia, and I think that it largely is, but what I found interesting was that the young native Armenians were much less forgiving of their own people for this phenomenon.  Almost across the board, young Armenians with whom I spoke seemed to have tremendous respect for the idea that Americans were expected to live on their own.  One even told me “many people [in Armenia] are too lazy to do this.”  Whether the charge of “laziness” is justified or not, I believe that Armenians I met envy this type of financial independence and the individual freedom that comes with it.

 The other side to this argument is that there are many things that Armenians find unappealing about the United States because such radical individuality has its price.  In Armenia, students I taught would express shock at the amount of drug use and violence in the US. They also seemed to generalize Americans as cold and selfish, and on some level they are right.  In America we often neglect the notion of community and of family.  There are strong communities in America to be sure, but the feeling of national kinship in Armenia is much stronger than it is in America.  To understand what I mean, one must look no further than the Armenian sense of hospitality.  While a group of twenty-something Americans quibble over dividing the bill evenly amongst each member of the group, making sure that nobody pays a cent more than they owe, a young Armenian, financially poor by American standards, is happy to treat the group to dinner.  It is no exaggeration that an Armenian will quite literally give you the shirt off his back.  I have seen it happen. 

The many possible reasons for this difference in culture are beyond the scope of this essay, but I believe the power of Armenian fellowship should not be underestimated.  Yerevan, despite being the largest city of a developing country, is a much safer city than most US cities, and I saw far less homelessness in Yerevan than I see in New York or Philadelphia.  Though it is just my own conjecture, I don’t believe it far-fetched to suggest that these observations derive from the tight-knit community in this small country. 

Armenia is a young country with many problems, but it has the benefit of a vocal young population and a diaspora who is invested in its survival.  The younger generation seems to long for their nation to enjoy the same economic and social freedoms as the west, while maintaining their Armenian identity. The question is: What is to be preserved and what is to be improved? In order to answer this question, one must first decide what is central to the Armenian identity—what it means to be Armenian.  In the diaspora we have so many, often conflicting, ideas about this definition.  Therefore, I believe that going forward, the answer to what it means to be Armenian must ultimately come from Armenia itself.

As an American from the suburbs of New Jersey, I do not believe it is my place to be a part of defining what is important to the country of Armenia. But as an Armenian it is my job is to be a student of the issues that Armenia faces moving forward and to use this framework to inform my Armenian identity and the ways I can be a part of Armenia’s growth.