This week, the way it always does when I’m visiting my family, my mind wandered back to that old saying about home and how you can never go there again. And, if pressed, I’d have to admit that I think it’s true. Once you move away from home, it will never be quite the same again. You’ll change, home will change. The pieces will never fit together quite the way they did before. But really, that’s only part of the story.
For one thing, change isn’t something that only happens when you leave. It makes it more visible, sure, and might make it happen faster as you adjust to a different set of circumstances and surroundings, but if you stayed, things wouldn’t remain static. Children grow, towns expand or shrink, new people come and old ones age or move away. Your hometown in 1998 is not the same place as your hometown in 2008 or 2018. Not entirely.
But then again, even if years pass between visits, there’s still familiarity. When I visit my family, I might not be sure which of my siblings is sleeping in which room, or even which ones are actually still living with my parents, but when we all come together I can guarantee that there will be exuberant conversation, giddy tickle fights, and more than a few terrible puns. It brings another old saying to mind: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
It’s not something exclusive to your first home, of course. If– when I go back to Armenia, it won’t be the same as it was while I was a volunteer with Birthright Armenia. Hopefully some of that will be because the country has continued to grow stronger. Some of it will have more to do with the fact that it won’t be my first visit. And some of it will be for other reasons entirely. But however it has changed, it will still be Hayastan, my homeland and the place I spent four crazy months in late 2017.
So, no. When you leave a place, you won’t be able to go back to things exactly as they were. But maybe it won’t be so different as you think, either.
I’ve been writing this post all week, a few words here, a few phrases there, trying to convince it all to come together into something that might help me share a fraction of the thoughts and emotions that are spinning through my head. Now that I’m so close to the end of this trip, the conflicting feelings of wanting to stay and go are even stronger, and my excitement for going home again is tempered by the fact that I don’t want to leave. These past four months have proven more meaningful than I ever imagined.
It’s funny: a year ago, I wasn’t even certain that I would apply to the Birthright program. It seemed like such a wild idea to drop everything and travel to the other side of the world, especially when I wasn’t even certain that Armenia was “my” homeland. My family’s roots are in Kessab, Syria, not the area that now makes up the Republic of Armenia. I assumed that I would be able to learn about the history of my people generally, but that it would feel far removed from that of my family. I was wrong.
I feel a connection to this country that is far stronger than I ever expected it to be. I want to see it grow and thrive, and I want to do what I can to help that happen, whether from the Diaspora or from Armenia itself whenever I get a chance to come back.
Of course, the fact that it’s a beautiful place doesn’t hurt. I spent the majority of my time in Yerevan, and I’ve already talked about how much I love the rose-colored stones that give the city its distinctive look, and our trip to Artsakh in October took us through mountainous territory that captured my heart and my imagination, as is evident in the absurd number of pictures I have from those four days alone. And this past weekend I got to go on one last excursion, this time to the city of Gyumri in the northwest of the country.
The city is far smaller than Yerevan with a population of around 120,000, and if I had more time I could see myself taking advantage of the option of volunteering there. I don’t regret staying in the capital for the full four months I was here, but I also know that that choice meant that I haven’t seen huge portions of what Armenia has to offer. In case I needed one, I suppose it’s an excuse to come back again.
This won’t be my last post about Armenia. There’s so much more to say, and in the coming weeks and months and longer as I process this wonderful journey, I’m sure I’ll bend your ears about it again. Probably, in part, to complain about reverse culture shock. But that’s tomorrow’s trouble, and I’ll deal with it then.
As we say at Birthright Armenia: It’s not “goodbye”, it’s “see you later”.
This week, I got to teach basic first aid to a group of high school students. If that doesn’t sound particularly exciting, let me try to explain why this is so special to me.
Months ago, back before I got to Armenia, the first thing that had me feeling really, truly excited about joining the Birthright program was the potential opportunity to help teach first aid and CPR in a number of Armenian villages through an organization called Aid to Armenia (ATA). When I got certified as an EMT a couple of years ago, it was like I had finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up, so the chance to put that knowledge to good use in Armenia while also getting the experience that could help me get a job in that field was thoroughly appealing. Sadly, due to timing and a handful of other factors, it didn’t work out and I took other volunteer placements instead.
Until this week.
Members of the Birthright staff had mentioned once or twice that, if I was interested, there was some possibility I might be able to help with some trainings in Yerevan. One of the major logistical problems that had made it impossible for me to go out to the villages was a lack of available transportation; if I stayed in the city, that was no longer an issue. To my shame, I didn’t follow through right away. It was a slim chance, and with just over a month left on my trip I was loath to shake things up when they were working so well, or at least well enough to be safe. If you ever wondered what my greatest weakness was, I think that’s it: I don’t leave my comfort zone easily.
At the same time, spending two days every week just observing for the past three months was hard. I was learning, and the friendships I had begun (and continue) to make with the doctors and nurses at Nork Marash are more than worth the time spent on them, but I hated that I wasn’t doing anything hands-on in any medical field.
The thing that finally pushed me into doing something about it was the half day I ended up with no one to shadow. I talked to the same Birthright staff member who had mentioned that there might be some possibilities in Yerevan, and, long story short and with lots of help from lots of people, everything fell into place. Another Birthright volunteer agreed to interpret, and now there’s a few more people who know a bit more about basic first aid. And maybe that means they’ll be able to help someone when they need it most.
The weather has gotten colder again, and my breath rolls from my mouth and nose in clouds when I walk outside each morning. Some green and yellow leaves still cling to the branches of the trees, but more fall every day, carpeting the sidewalks and the streets. In the park beside the Republic Square metro, the emptied fountains have been decorated with white Christmas lights.
Four weeks. That’s how much time I have left before I head back home. And it’s passing at an astonishing rate, leaving me in a state of mild panic. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when lose your footing while running down a hill, leaving you sliding and digging in your heels in a desperate attempt to stop.
The past few days have been fairly quiet on my end, which I’ve enjoyed. I took a little time to wander Yerevan with my camera, and though I didn’t get half as many pictures as I’d like, I have a few now that give a lovely impression of the city. I finally made my way up the Cascade. The climb was impromptu and after dark, so I’ll need to do it again when I have a little more time to just sit and enjoy the incredible view, but even a few minutes looking out across the spread of city lights was a lovely experience.
Iron bear statue in Charles Aznavour Square.
Buildings on Abovyan Street.
Fountain in Charles Aznavour Square.
My wanderings also, predictably, took me into a bookstore. Anyone who loves books knows the pleasure of wandering along the shelves and hunting for another world to explore. It’s a slightly different experience when most of them are written in a language you don’t speak (or read) fluently, though the extra time it takes to read even the titles can be enjoyable in its own right. The clerk came over to me after a few minutes and asked if she could help me find anything, and when I asked if she had any fantasy stories in Armenian she told me she had translations of Harry Potter and The Hobbit; I left a little while later with my own new copy of the latter, still grinning like a little kid.
I’ve had a rough spot or two in the last little bit as well, as if the honeymoonish feel of visiting for the first time has begun to wear off and leave me overwhelmed by everything that still needs to be done to get Armenia to thrive. One of the first pieces of advice that every Birthright Armenia volunteer receives is to not give in to negativity, and while that always made sense to me, I understand a little better why the staff makes sure that it’s one of the first things we hear on our arrival. Armenia is a developing country, with all that comes with that– both the good and the bad. It’s sometimes hard to ignore the little voice of fear and frustration that whispers that things will never change.
But that view is so small. It forgets about how far we have already come and denies the work and the vision of so many people who see potential where others see failure. It looks around and sees what doesn’t work but not everything that has already been fixed. Worst of all, it’s the kind of thinking that paralyzes, because if nothing is going to change, trying to make things better is a waste of time. It’s also categorically false.
That’s about it for this week. To those of you who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday I hope you had a wonderful time with family and friends! December is coming fast, but I’m still hoping to finish and post a new short story here before the end of the month, so keep an eye out for that. It should go up early next week as long as I don’t get distracted by outlining the second draft of my current novel instead.
If I could change one thing about the Birthright excursions, it would be to spend more time at each of the places we visit. Of course, barring manipulation of the spacetime continuum, that time would have to come from somewhere and would probably mean visiting fewer places. So perhaps that wouldn’t be the best thing to change, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these beautiful sites.
For our most recent outing, we started by visiting the Yereruk Basilica in Armenia’s Shirak province. It was a chilly morning, particularly after sitting still for the two hours or so it took for the vans to drive from Yerevan to the village of Anipemza on the western border. A distant, cloudy haze filled the sky, as it often does here, somehow making the rocky plains around us seem that much wider.
The Akhurian River and the closed border with Turkey are nearby, a reminder of the unfriendly political situation that the country faces. It adds a further bittersweet note to the visit, beyond the one that always seems to haunt old ruins.
The remains of the basilica are awe-inspiring on their own, though I can’t help wishing I could see it whole. The church is large enough that it’s clear it was central to a large community when it was constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries. It’s also one of the oldest surviving examples of Christian architecture in Armenia, which is why it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in August 1995.
From there, we climbed back into the vans to go to the village of Dashtadem where we were to have lunch, which we did in the home of one of the village families. I’ve talked before about Armenian hospitality, and this is another example of it. Birthright excursions started visiting this family after the staff went door to door, asking if anyone would be willing to host us. This family said yes, and now when we come this way, we eat with them.
The walls of the old Dashtadem Fortress stood just a few yards from the house, and after eating a wonderful meal of dolma and lavash we walked across the road to explore it. I think I was grinning the entire time. I’ve always loved castles, but living in the States means I don’t often* get a chance to actually see them. The original keep was constructed in the 9th century, and its enceinte was constructed in the early 1800s, with other additions being made in the years between.
View from the wall.
View from the keep.
Kristaporivank in the distance.
Ramparts near the main gate.
From there, it was a short drive to the Cathedral of Talin. Like at Yereruk, the size of the ruins give a hint of the size of the community it served when it was built in the 7th century. It was built with two studies on either side of the apse, both of which contain a series of handholds that can be used to access the second floor and were used as a way to hide the church’s manuscripts when hostile rulers came with the intention of burning them all.
The collapsed Talin Cathedral dome.
Interior of Talin.
View of St. Astvatsatsin from Talin.
View from southeast.
View from the northwest.
We finished the day with a short stop at Aruchavank. Like so many of the old churches here it suffered extensive damage from earthquakes, and though most of it has been rebuilt, its dome remains collapsed. The architecture of its eastern wall contains two examples of a type of engineering that provides the entire structure with greater stability, and our guide told us that another monastery using the same method was strong enough to survive even after its central pillars were cut by the Mongols under Tamerlane.
The southern wall.
Entrance to Aruchavank.
The eastern side of the cathedral.
I love the fact that there are stories like this everywhere we go, that history in this region has been recorded for so long that the connection to the past is so much clearer than I am used to. And I know I’m only seeing and hearing a fraction of them. There is so much to learn, so much to discover. Armenia is such a small country, but it’s so wonderfully full.
* The only other time (so far!) was about seven years ago, when I had the chance to study abroad in the UK and Ireland, and our group visited Kenilworth Castle. I took hundreds of pictures, and if I remember right, my friend and I were late in returning to the bus.
This past weekend, our excursion was a little different. Instead of just visiting one of the countless, incredible sites of Armenia, we got to add something as well: we got to help plant three hundred fruit trees on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.
This was my second trip out to the memorial in Armavir province. We took our first trip there back at the end of September when the weather was just starting to turn and the memory of a hot summer was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s hard to believe that that was only about a month ago. It feels so much longer.
We met a group from the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) on a small plot of ground near the Sardarapat Museum. Trenches where we would be planting the saplings– apricot and plum– already lined the ground, and the young trees themselves lay spaced out where they were to be planted. All we had to do was set them in the ground, perhaps digging a little deeper into the rocky soil to provide room for the roots, and fill the space around them with dirt again. Then, we needed to build small dams below each sapling before watering each one with a bucket to welcome each tree to its new home. Last of all, the ATP workers would turn on the water and let it run down the rows, watering the trees once more after the first bucketful had settled them all into place.
It was early afternoon when we finished, and the bagged lunches that the Birthright staff passed out to us were more than welcome: big sandwiches, fruit, salad, gata (գաթա). We ate them sitting together on the ground just above the newly planted orchard. Afterwards, we had the chance to visit the museum and the memorial again, and I was happy for the more leisurely afternoon and the chance to take a few pictures that I hadn’t managed to on our first visit.
A woman representing revival on the rear of the memorial wall.
One of the eagles representing the courage of the fighting men.
The rear of the memorial wall.
Excursions like this are my favorite part of this adventure. They are a chance to give back a little in addition to looking and learning. They make it easy to think about the future. Armenia is this strange mix of young and old; our history stretches back for thousands of years, but the Republic only gained its independence from the USSR twenty six years ago and is still working to find and make its place in the world. Working where I am with the people I am with, it’s not difficult to have an optimistic view of what that place might be. No one denies that there is still a long way to go, but the atmosphere is heady and excited. It’s going to be hard, but we can do it. We can get there.
From a purely writer-ish point of view, that’s the kind of thing I want to tell stories about. Hard odds and hope. Ups and downs and the difficult work in between. Ideas and ideals. It’s not just those more abstract concepts, either. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy (and anything else that lets me make up whole worlds of my own), something new sparks my imagination every day. The dichotomy of new and ancient means that centuries-old churches are as much a part of what Armenia is as the fact that the country is the “Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union“. Kiosks throughout Yerevan let you renew your phone’s data plan and do a dozen similar things. The big intersection near where I live has no crosswalks, but if you take the steps down at any of the corners you find yourself in a kind of circular mall lined with stalls and stores and exits to the metro and the other side of the street.
I know I’m seeing the best Armenia has to offer, and though I’m aware of the worse parts of living here (low wages, government corruption, blockaded borders…), I don’t have to live them myself. Volunteering here for four months means that I get to experience life here in a way I couldn’t as a tourist, but four months is still just four months, a fraction of a year. It’s not enough time, for me, at least, to put down deep roots here. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely certain what I think of that.
While last week’s adventures can best be described as big and grand, my favorite parts of the past few days have definitely been of the smaller sort. Which is not to say that the experiences are going to stick with me any less. In fact, it’s often these incidental experiences that work themselves most deeply into my memories.
That being said, calling a khash party “small” is probably a bit misleading. Khash (խաշ) is a dish made by boiling sheep or cow’s feet to make a broth, which is then seasoned with garlic and salt to taste and given substance by crumbling dried lavash into it. It is traditionally eaten in the morning, and, in Armenia at least, only during months that have an “r” in the name. Vodka is often served as well, and you probably won’t feel like eating much else for the rest of the day.
I got to enjoy the meal with a large group from Impact Hub Yerevan, the amazing coworking space where the Repat Armenia office is located. Or rather, I did once I double-checked the address and realized that I’d ended up at the wrong branch of the restaurant. It all worked out in the end–hunger and the nagging knowledge that you’re already late do wonders to keep you walking quickly–and the rest of the morning was spent enjoying each other’s company over tasty food.
That, I think, is one of my favorite things about being here. We love food and we love friends, and we make sure to eat food with friends every chance we get. And by “friends” we mean everyone from brand new acquaintances to lifelong companions. All those old stories: Beowulf. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Hospitality was deeply ingrained in those cultures as well, and there was an assumption that guests would be treated a certain way. After spending two months in Armenia, I think I understand it a bit better.
Another highlight of the week happened while I was shadowing at the hospital. It wasn’t medical in nature, and I’m still missing the chance to be more involved in that field, but that’s another topic for another day. What my time shadowing at Nork Marash has given me every day I’m there is an incredible immersion in the language, and earlier this week I got the chance to see how far I’ve come.
A family who had come in several times before came in again. At one point, the doctor stepped out of the room and I stayed behind. Since they had met me before, several of the family members knew that I was an American, and I heard them mention that fact to each other, which I took as an opportunity to mention that I did speak a little Armenian.
It was so much fun to talk with them. As soon as they knew I could understand, they asked me questions about where I was from and why I was in Armenia, and though I didn’t always know the exact word I wanted to use, we definitely got by. It was such a simple conversation, but the reminder that I’ve learned enough Armenian to make basic connections with strangers here has left me a little giddy all week.
Other than that, it’s been a fairly low-key week. A couple members of my language class are finishing up their time here, so we all went out to dinner together to celebrate (and practice our Armenian). It’s rained once or twice, and most of the trees are boasting beautiful yellow leaves. I’m about a week past halfway through my trip now, and while I miss everyone back home terribly, I feel a similar tug every time I think about leaving. I suppose the only thing to do is to savor every minute of the time I have left.
Oh, man. Where to start. Our Artsakh trip was four days long, and I could almost dedicate an entire post to each one. However, in the interest of documenting my adventure in a timely manner (read: sometime this month), I’m going to try to fit it all in here. As always, let me know if there’s anything you’d like to hear about in more detail; I’ll be more than happy to oblige!
Before I start into what we actually did, I want to mention that Artsakh is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been– and yes, that’s including Santa Barbara, Ireland, and northern Idaho. According to one etymology, the name Artsakh means “Aran’s woods”, with Aran being an ancient Armenian king. The other name commonly used to refer to the region is Nagorno-Karabakh, which translates as “mountainous black garden” from a mixture of Russian, Turkish, and Persian. Either one is accurate, though words alone hardly do justice to its fierce beauty. Hopefully pictures will help where descriptions fail.
We left Yerevan at eight o’clock on Friday morning, starting our adventure by driving southwest to the Ararat Plain where we ate a breakfast of bread, coleslaw, and lakhmajun in a field with an incredible view of Greater and Lesser Ararat. Despite the vague fog that hung between us, the mountains were awe-inspiring.
From there, we drove on eastward through southern Armenia. I stared out the window the entire time, watching as the landscape grew ever more mountainous and the director of our program shared a thousand different facts and bits of knowledge about the places we passed. We made a short stop at the Arpi Market to buy snacks and use the restrooms, and I took the opportunity to take pictures of the rocky hills and the beautiful Arpa River.
Autumn colors in the hills behind the Arpa.
Down the road we had yet to travel.
Back up the road we came from.
The Arpa river.
The craggy hills above the market.
Our faithful buses.
The hills behind the Arpa.
The Arpa river.
Our next stop was at the Wings of Tatev, the world’s longest non-stop double track cable car, which we took up to the monastery and village of Tatev. We ate a simple lunch of salami, cheese, cucumber, and tomato wrapped in lavash (Armenian flatbread), which we got to enjoy in the refectory between exploring the grounds. Much of the monastery itself is currently being rebuilt after suffering severe damage during an earthquake in 1931. While much of it is still variously damaged, Saints Paul and Peter Church has been reconstructed and our group was able to go inside and receive a blessing from the bishop before we crossed over into Artsakh.
Reconstruction at Tatev.
Mountains surrounding Tatev.
Village in the mountains around Tatev.
View of mountain roads below the tramway.
Dome of Sts. Paul and Peter Church.
Khachkar in front of Tatev.
Ruins at Tatev.
It was well after dark by the time we finally reached Shushi. Group by group, the Birthright staff separated us by which Artsakhsi family we would be staying with, and our generous hosts received us and fed us and made sure we had everything we needed before sending us off to bed. Armenian hospitality is deeply warm and giving; I hadn’t thought it possible, but it was even more so in Artsakh.
Our second day started with breakfast at our homestays: tea, bread, cheese, preserves, potatoes. Perfect fuel for exploration. Both of the other volunteers who stayed at the same house spoke Armenian, so we were able to talk with our host mom and share a little back and forth. I think my only regret from the trip was that our schedule was so packed that we had little chance to get to know her and her family more.
View from the corner where we waited for our bus.
Another view from our corner.
After that, we gathered at the Shushi Music Academy where we learned more about the conflict between Artsakh and Azerbaijan– a huge topic that I will not be able to do any sort of justice in this post. Please, if you’d like to hear about it, let me know and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned. We also got to hear about the work that the Music Academy is doing. The institution is a full academic school, though as the name implies it also focuses on music. In addition to teaching the students, they also provide instruments and two meals a day.
From there we made a short stop at the Tatik-Papik Monument just north of Stepanakert before continuing on to an army base outside the city. For obvious reasons, I have no pictures of the latter, but the experience was incredibly interesting. We had the opportunity to see two different types of tanks, shared lunch with the soldiers, and ran a part of the obstacle course they use for training.
Tatik and Papik (Grandma and Grandpa)
Tatik and Papik (Grandma and Grandpa)
Մենք ենք մեր լեռները. We are our mountains.
Afterwards, we returned to Stepanakert and took part in a “winemob”, which is what it’s called when the ninety of us get divided up into groups of five and each group is given a bottle of wine and told to get ourselves invited into one of the surrounding apartments in order to get to know some of the people who lived there. The staff made sure that each group had at least one person who spoke fluent Armenian, sent us all towards specific buildings, and gave us a time to be back at the buses, but beyond that, left us to our own devices.
It’s not the sort of thing I can imagine doing anywhere else. If I’m honest, I had a hard enough time imagining it in Stepanakert. But I’m afraid I might be giving the wrong impression. Despite my introverted misgivings, this was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had.
My group didn’t even get a chance to knock on a door before we were invited inside. As we reached the building we were assigned and tried to figure out where we were supposed to enter, a man carrying groceries came up and asked us what we were doing. As soon as we explained, he invited us to follow him to his home where he introduced us to his wife and his little son, and we spent the next hour and a half sharing stories and kindling our new friendship over wine, fresh fruit, and homemade vodka.
Our last stop of the day was the Gandzasar monastery, which we unfortunately did not reach until after dark, and therefore were not able to see the incredible view of the surrounding area, which we were told is particularly beautiful. The church itself is lovely, of course, and is surrounded by high walls, one of which still bears damage from Azeri artillery, and we could also see bullet holes in the main building, though I understand that it never fell during the Liberation War. We ate another simple, tasty meal of meat, cheese, and vegetables wrapped in lavash and finally returned to our homestays a little after midnight.
We had breakfast with our host families again, then headed back out to the buses for the ride out to the Azokh Cave. Or rather, to a trail head nearby which we used to reach the caves themselves. The hike wasn’t particularly long, but our surroundings were incredibly beautiful, and I spent the entire trek stopping every thirty seconds to take more pictures. I regret nothing.
The Azokh Cave is actually a group of six interconnected caves that have proven to be a site of rich archaeological discovery as well as a pristine ecosystem in its own right. We were able to go inside, and one of our staff members who had worked with the team doing the excavation told us about the process and some of the things they had found. We also spent a little while with our lights turned out, standing in the deep dark and listening to the fluttering of bats overhead.
Afterwards, we hiked back down to the trail head, where a couple of trucks picked us all up to take us to the nearby village of Azokh for lunch. There’s a hiking trail that runs through Artsakh and passes by Azokh, and one of the village families has opened their doors to those going through. They also welcomed ninety hungry Birthrighters and fed us with bread, cheese, meat, incredible salads, tasty gata, and more.
From there we returned to Stepanakert, where we had a little free time to explore the city. It’s not a large city, and though even the last ten years have seen much progress in the rebuilding process, there are still many, many buildings that are either abandoned or still bear damage from the war. It’s a striking dichotomy, a strange mixture of hope and pain.
Our final stop for the day was the kef or feast at the home of a longtime friend of Birthright Armenia. The whole evening was filled with food, drink, and countless toasts as we expressed our friendship and our thanks for each other, our staff, and our incredible host. The kef is something that every Birthright group that comes to Artsakh has taken part in for the last ten years, and though many of us there that night had never been there before, our host welcomed us as family.
Despite the late night after the kef, some of us dragged ourselves out of bed early the next morning for a hike to Jdrduz in the mountains above Shushi. The views from the hike to the caves the day before were wonderful. The views here were awe-inspiring. We found beautiful views of both Shushi and Stepanakert. We saw canyons and a village open up below us, the remains of an ancient hill fort built impossibly into the cliffs, the metal ropes strung across the gorges to keep enemy aircraft from sneaking in under the radar. I don’t remember quite how long we spent up there, soaking in the beauty and the history of the place. I just know that I could have spent much longer there.
Ancient hill fort ruins.
Anti aircraft emplacement.
Abandoned home on the way up to Jdrduz.
Our last hours in Shushi were spent packing, eating a final breakfast at our homestays, and taking a quick walking tour of Shushi. We visited the ruins of one of the city’s old mosques and saw some of the work being done to restore it. We passed through some of the ancient, narrow streets and saw the old buildings there. We spent time in the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral.
And finally, we had to leave.
I’m not sure what I expected to find in Artsakh. I had heard that it was an incredibly beautiful place, and that is certainly true. It’s so much more than that, though. It’s a place filled with people fighting to make a life for themselves, a place filled with history, a place that can simultaneously give you hope and leave you wondering how a thousand and one obstacles can ever be overcome. It’s a place I’ll never be able to do justice in a single blog post. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do it justice with words at all.
This past week has been one of those funny stretches of time when you’re keeping busy enough, but when you look back and try to remember exactly what you did you find that you can’t quite remember. I blame it on my time being full of a million little things instead of one or two big ones.
Part of that was the fact that Yerevan celebrated its 2799th birthday this weekend, which meant that there was all sorts of celebration, including a half marathon on Sunday. Before you ask, no, I did not run in it or any of the shorter runs happening at the same time, but I did help register the hardy souls that did. That was an adventure in and of itself, since while my Armenian is getting better every day, I’m still not quick with it. My two fellow volunteers were native Armenian speakers, though, and more than happy to bail me out more times than I can count. It was slightly trickier when we met a few people who only spoke Russian, but even then we were able to send them down to the next table.
As hard as it is at times, I think the huge bounty of languages here is one of my favorite things. There’s Armenian, of course, and I’m getting to the point where I can recognize the differences between Western and Eastern even when it’s being spoken quickly, though my understanding of what is being said is still a spotty at best. There’s a lot of Russian as well, and spending time at the Birthright office means that I hear at least bits and pieces of Spanish, German, Arabic, French… And English is common in my day to day, which I’m simultaneously grateful for while still knowing that I’d be learning Armenian faster if I couldn’t fall back on my native language.
That being said, I’m far less able to do that while at the hospital. While there are a number of people there who do speak English, most do not and I get all kinds of practice for speaking Armenian. It’s exhausting, but my progress is undeniable if still a bit slower than I’d like.
Speaking of the hospital! This week I got the chance to spend a little time in the actual Emergency Department, or at least the section of it devoted to cardiac emergencies. I saw what a STEMI looks like on an echocardiogram, and was able to watch on a monitor as they treated it with a stent.
The rest of the week has been pretty low-key, just keeping busy with the aforementioned million little things. Part of that has been preparation for an excursion to the Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, is a territory just east of the Republic of Armenia with a mostly Armenian population. It declared and fought for its independence from Azerbaijan in the early 90’s, and while most nations do not recognize its sovereignty, it has been a “de facto independent entity” since the fall of the Soviet Union.
I’ll have a lot more to say about it next week after we return, as well as pictures, as I understand that it’s a particularly beautiful area.
It’s been a fairly quiet week, which has given me a little more time to sit back and think, which I’ve enjoyed. A couple weeks back I mentioned that I was starting to feel at home in Armenia, or at least in Yerevan. That feeling has continued to grow, almost without my noticing, and whatever happens after I finish volunteering, I’m certain that a piece of my heart will always stay here.
There’s a part at the end of The Return of the King where Frodo tells Sam that he “cannot always been torn in two“, and that he must be “one and whole, for many years”. That quote lodged in my head sometime during college as I started trying to figure out how to balance my love for family and friends in my hometown with deep, new friendships. Now, instead of being torn in two I’m being torn in three, and I can only hope that Frodo’s advice was at least somewhat more Sam-specific than broadly general.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these feelings got stronger the same week that I visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial for the first time. A group of Birthright volunteers gathered there around its eternal flame on Wednesday night and listened as our program’s Country Director read passages from the eyewitness account of a genocide survivor. If asked to describe the experience, the first word to come to mind would be “sobering”, but with that feeling being tempered by an incredible sense of resolve.
Today, Armenians live. Today, Armenia exists. Despite everything that happened, we are here today. With everything good and bad about this tiny country in the South Caucasus, it’s here and it’s independent and it has a future. There’s just a lot of work to do.
Which would explain why I’m feeling a little pulled apart. Because when I go back to the States, I’ll still be Armenian. I’ve always known that, but there’s such a huge difference between knowing a little bit about the language and the culture and the food and actually living and working in Armenia, even if only for a few months. It’s only been six weeks; I’m less than halfway through my trip and I’ve already learned so much.
Right now, I can only guess at what it’s going to look like. And I probably shouldn’t be doing that yet either, since, as I mentioned just above, I’m less than halfway through my trip. I need to live here, in the present.
There are about a thousand other thoughts buzzing around in my head right now, almost all focusing on what it means to be an Armenian-American (and more specifically an Armenian-American writer), but none of them are coherent enough to merit writing down. Mostly because they are less full-fledged thoughts than they are just questions. At a guess, it’s going to be quite some time before I find answers to them that satisfy me.
So, in lieu of further writing, I’ll just share a couple pictures of the city in the country that’s doing a frighteningly good job of stealing my heart.