February 9, 2018

My Eleventh Trip to Armenia That Felt Like My First

Saturday, July 1st, 2017. This summer was my eleventh time in Armenia, but on this particular day, it felt like the first.

I woke up exhausted after spending the previous night with friends, playing mafia and poking fun at each other into the wee hours of the night. Even though I knew to expect the impending exhaustion as we started our days bright and early every Saturday, I just couldn’t skip out on a Friday evening with friends. Monday through Friday, I volunteered with the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan, assisting with research on the sexual and reproductive health outcomes of domestic violence victims. Although I intend to make assisting these victims my life’s work, after pouring over and translating some heavy interviews all week, I couldn’t help but to want to kick back with my հայասէր/hayaser* (Armenia-loving) friends by the time Friday rolled around.

Every Saturday morning, Birthright Armenia volunteers filed onto a bus to explore our motherland. We’d visit both the popular sites, and some of the lesser-known ones as well. As the bus cruised along, some of the more chipper volunteers would distribute խաչապուրի/khachapuri (cheesy, flaky bread) or paprika Pringles to the groggier volunteers who didn’t have time for breakfast. On this particular Saturday, we visited the Cathedral of Talin (no longer an active church), Surp Astvatsatsin Church, and Dashtadem Fortress (10th through 19th century, now a historical site). By lunchtime, we were ravenous, and also a little clueless as to what this lunch would soon entail.

cathedral of talin armenia
Cathedral of Talin

Surp Astvatsatsin Church armenia
Surp Astvatsatsin Church

Dashtadem Fortress armenia
Dashtadem Fortress

When we arrived at the site of our lunch, the Birthright Armenia director, Sevan Kabakian, explained that a local family in the village of Dashtadem had opened their doors to us, and that the meal to come would be made entirely from scratch. Standing outside of a little house and shielding my eyes from the beating sun, I took in the scene around me. There were a few young, Armenian women, dressed in our traditional տարազ/taraz (costume), sitting on a bench, huddled together and giggling. Some of my fellow Birthright volunteers were seeking refuge from the sun under the few trees in the yard, while the rest excitedly went in the direction of the clucking chickens in coops. The mouth-watering smell of խորոված/khorovats (barbeque) was seemingly wafting in my direction... or was it տոլմա/tolma (stuffed grape or cabbage leaves)? A few feet away from me appeared to be the man of the house, holding an accordion and towering over a little boy who was looking up at him in admiration. This man then turned towards us and said համեցէք/hametsek (roughly translates to “come on in” in this context), while motioning for us to make our way into the house.

Dashtadem armenia taraz armenian dance

As we walked into the house and past the kitchen, several women were scurrying about, and despite having their hands full, they smiled and exchanged pleasantries with a few of us. There is no such thing as too many guests in an Armenian home, as was exemplified by all 50 of us somehow sitting down to eat together in the same small room. The room was sparse, filled with only tables and chairs. Paint was chipping off of the walls. The table was filled with a hodgepodge of dishes, cups, and silverware, probably from borrowing some from the next-door neighbors in order to accommodate all of us. This hospitality (and doing so with the utmost happiness) is typical of Armenian villagers, who often are struggling financially. They extend their homes and their hearts to visitors and ensure that we feel comfortable and that we leave with full bellies. Even if we were strangers upon first arriving, we would leave feeling like family.

As we started munching on the splendor of food in front of us (freshly baked bread, hand-rolled tolma, tan made with milk from their cow…), a few men began to play beautiful music on some of Armenia’s traditional instruments. I understand that folk music might not be everyone’s favorite genre of music, but as I looked around the room, every single person was absolutely fixated on this performance, and occasionally clapping along when the beat permitted it. I took one video for posterity’s sake, and spent the rest of the time being completely present and soaking up these ephemeral moments.

After we all but cleared the food off the table, we were then asked to step outside of the family’s home, and were surprised with a stunning dance performance by the taraz-wearing women who I saw earlier. At the conclusion of their performance, one of the women stepped towards us and began instructing us on how to replicate several of the dances that we had just watched. Despite a few of us clearly having two left feet (ahem, me) and Sevan needing to translate the instructions into English for some of us, our patient teacher continued with unparalleled enthusiasm for the entire duration of our lesson.

Dashtadem taraz armenian dance armenia traditional

Between hearing my favorite instrument, the զուռնա/zurna, reverberating throughout the room, being patiently and lovingly taught how to dance our traditional dances, and the overall generous hospitality of the family who hosted us, my eyes welled up with tears a few times that day.

It didn’t matter whether you spoke Eastern or Western Armenian, if your accent was too “American-sounding,” or if you spoke any Armenian at all. It didn’t matter where your parents came from, or which political party they supported. It didn’t matter if you were born in Armenia, or elsewhere. It didn’t matter if you were “100% Armenian,” or if you “looked Armenian.” These characteristics have so often been the reason for ridiculing others in the diasporan community in the United States, and for driving a wedge within our already-small community. And during these moments, on July 1st, none of this mattered.

Some of us were from countries with an almost nonexistent Armenian community. Some of us had never had any exposure to anything Armenian, so we decided to leave our comfort zones and go straight to Armenia. Some of us were born and raised in Armenia, and had never crossed its borders into another country. Some of us had freckles, or light brown to blonde hair, or small noses, or pale skin. Some of us were not even Armenian by blood. Yet there we were, sharing a meal together, clapping along to the same songs, holding pinkies during the same dances, and exchanging smiles even when we didn’t have a language in common.

What mattered is what we did have in common. What we shared in our hearts that day.

This was the day that felt like it was my first time really experiencing Armenia. And this was the day I fell even more in love with Armenia and its beautiful people. Our beautiful people. After spending almost a month at my job site delving into a social issue which has since become my passion, and then experiencing this excursion with Birthright Armenia, filled with so much history, music, food, tradition, language, fellowship… our culture, my heart was so full.  

*Transliteration in Eastern Armenian.

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