Armenia: Returning Close To Home
By Lisa McCallum
Kelly leads us to a Soviet-style car where her driver Sasha is waiting for us, leaning against the car, smoking a cigarette. He smiles and rushes up to take our bags. Sasha is a tall, pleasant man in his 30’s with dark brown hair and green eyes. He looks Greek to me except for his eyes, which place him closer to Russia. Having a driver seems snobbish, but as an ex-pat, it is not unusual for Kelly to have someone who takes her to and from work. She has reserved the car—and Sasha—for the week. It's midnight in Yerevan, the capitol city, and after almost two full days of flying here, in economy no less, I am suddenly being chauffeured around Armenia like a princess.
Yerevan is a new world, one that is rising from former Soviet rule and learning to stand on its own as a democracy, albeit on the legs of a newborn horse. The buildings are in disrepair, and torn-up sidewalks look Eastern European, while the constant dust in the air reminds me of China. Armenia is truly a mixture of cultures: Armenian, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern. Like any country that broke free from Soviet rule in 1991, it is now caught between a fierce national pride and attempts to profit off of old Soviet junk in weekly outdoor markets, like the vernissage. Yerevan is both an example of what is going well and not so well in the years since Armenia instated democracy. It is a preemie, struggling to breathe and still needing care (but not necessarily wanting it) after existing in Moscow’s shadow since the 1920s.
The next morning Kelly’s friend Lala takes me and my traveling companion Stacy on a tour of Yerevan spouting history, culture, and stories of great Armenians along the way. I learn that Armenia used to be a large empire that included eastern Turkey and parts of Syria and Lebanon. High on Tsitsernakaberd Hill overlooking Yerevan, Lala points out stunning Mount Ararat just over the Turkish border.
“It belongs to Armenia,” she says. “That’s where Noah built his ark to avoid the flood. It’s in the Bible.”
“It’s almost always covered in fog,” Kelly says.
Mount Ararat is Armenia’s main claim to fame; however, it lies in Turkey where Armenians are forbidden to visit. It is no surprise that Armenians want ‘their’ mountain back, but that is only one reason that Armenians and Turks don’t get along. The other is the genocide committed by the Turks against the Armenians during World War I, a genocide that is still officially denied by the Turks.
I ask Lala about the genocide and how it has affected the current generation, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. Instead, she leads us back down to Republic Square and gathers us around another statue of a man whose name ends in ‘ian’—all Armenian names end in ‘ian’ or ‘iyan’—for one more story of heroism.
When we walk through a park, I notice clusters of men sitting and chatting, occasionally sipping from tiny cups of coffee. I ask Lala if they have jobs.
“That’s what the fall of communism did to us,” she answers. “Ever since we became independent, things are like this. The men can’t find work because no one has the money to pay them. The government promised to find everyone jobs, but it doesn’t have enough jobs to give now that private industry is here.”
“Some people think the old ways are better,” Kelly says. “At least they repaired things they tore up, like the sidewalks.” The sidewalks are one big puzzle that has exploded and no one has bothered to put the pieces of concrete back in the correct spots. No one did it because it wasn’t anyone’s job to do it.
Later, Lala gives us an abbreviated Armenian language lesson. We chant “Barev!” and “Shnora galutsiun!” for ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you.”
“Shaht lahv!” Lala tells us enthusiastically: ‘Very good!’ Relief. The last thing I want from her is its opposite, “shaht vaht.”
The phrase Lala teaches us that I find most useful for the rest of the week means 'no problem,' and sounds like I’m describing a troubled Spanish girl, “Problem chka!” (pronounced ‘chica’). Later that week at the vernissage I find a postcard of a car with a flat tire filled to the roof with oranges. The card says, “Problem chka!” I’m not sure if it’s an accurate representation of this country, but it’s so absurd I have to buy it.
Kelly is part of the group referred to as the “Diaspora.” The Diaspora is an Armenian phenomenon: Armenians who grew up somewhere else who come back to live in Armenia. The majority of ex-pats in Yerevan are Armenian-Americans or Armenian-Australians. Their Armenian blood links them to this country in a way I can't ever understand, my ancestors being from eight countries in northern Europe.
“If you live outside of Armenia, you feel like you have to come live here for a couple of years, maybe three,” Kelly says. She quickly clarifies, “You don’t have to do it; you want to do it.” Wherever we go in Yerevan, we run into her friends, young ex-pats who come from California or New York or Sydney, working for the embassy or running their own companies, things they probably wouldn’t be doing yet if they had stayed at home.
We spend an evening at the Phantom of the Opera coffeehouse with Alex and Anna, two ‘Diasporan’ who are dating despite the fact she recently moved back to Australia and is just visiting. When I ask them about living here, Alex says, “When I’m here, I feel this connection to my roots. It’s hard to explain, but I’m from here even though I wasn’t born here.”
“I just knew I had to live here for a while,” Anna adds. “Growing up, my grandparents always wanted to come back here; but they didn’t. They made a new life in Australia, but they would talk about Armenia like it was the Promise Land. I guess I had to see it for myself!” She laughs at her idealism.
Among each other, the Diasporans’ English is strewn with Armenian phrases. They study Armenian, not Russian, in their free time. They travel around the country exploring its villages but still unable to cross into Western Armenia, the Turkish part, where their ancestors actually came from; they are living right next to what they are searching for, but they can’t reach it.
Besides Mount Ararat and the ark, Armenia’s other biblical claim to fame is being the first officially Christian country in the world. Christianity became the state religion in 301 A.D., after Armenia, which was part of the Roman Empire became influenced by Roman ideas. Visiting churches in Armenia is tantamount to seeing museums in Paris or eating fish and chips in London.
Sasha drives us through Armenia’s Death Valley to one of the country’s typical churches with a square base, capped by a tube-like structure with a cone on top. The church is solid, made of dark gray rocks cemented together. A small, shiny brass cross rests above the conical steeple.
Today a group of people are gathered outside the entrance to the church chatting fervently. I learn from Kelly that a girl is getting confirmed and a sheep will be slaughtered, bled, and cooked to celebrate the occasion. Not wanting to disturb their ceremony, we go around the back, and we stumble on the sheep. Two men are chatting boisterously while slaughtering it, barely looking at the animal; they have done this many times before.
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