“Does anyone know Farsi, or Arabic?” is not the welcome phrase I was expecting to receive at the border of Armenia after taking the eerily long walk in no-man’s-land between the Georgia checkpoint and Armenian territory a few hundred yards further down a remote dirt road. And yet, as I neared the post, clutching my passport tightly, I was met by a British couple frantically searching for help as they motioned to two confused Iranian travelers. Pushing my visa papers to the side of the counter, I took the pen and began to translate (rather roughly) their form into Arabic and managed stumble through a conversation on their names, vocations, and reasons for travel until the paper was filled with crossed-out scribbles and (hopefully) the right answers. Thanking me, I parted the Persian pair and boarded by marshuka for the remainder of my six hour tightly packed ride through the mountains of the Caucasus towards Yerevan.
Breathing for what seemed like the first time in centuries, I embraced the city air, found a taxi, and took in my first impressions of this vibrantly ancient nation. Yerevan is at once both more European and more Soviet than Tbilisi. The winding and haphazardly placed cobblestone roads of my old home have vanished and been replaced by wide, paved avenues reminiscent of Parisian boulevards with shops and cafes lining the sidewalks. The city is absent of dark underground walkways, but instead has traffic lights (I believe I counted six in the entirety of my time in Georgia) and pedestrian crosswalks where traffic actually stops for walkers rather than speeding up. The large patio surrounding the Opera house is littered with outdoor cafes and magnificent fountains, where one can find both young and old enjoying the spring weather. Nonetheless, the enchantment of time gone by is missing in this urban jungle; there are no jewels of 19th Century verandas or ornate doors leading to long abandoned buildings here. Instead, the bland social realist architecture and Soviet apartment blocs overpower what little structures are left of the years years ago. Where Russian store signs in Tbilisi have been repainted with English letters many fronts in Yerevan still hold testament to what this quaint city once was.
Though walking through the streets reminded me more of a mixture of a modern European capital and the grit of the Bronx with an uncanny touch of big brother, the palaces that hold the treasures of the past have given me a vast and brilliant view of Armenian history from the first civilization up until their last political election. A visit to the National Armenian History Museum my first day provided the foundation for the excursions to come with highlights ranging from the first leather shoe all the way to the folk crafts and traditional dress of Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky’s home town. Likewise, listening to ancient tales, medical remedies, and discoveries of medieval astronomers from our guide at the Matenadaran, an ancient manuscript library, created a rich world of Armenian society from parchment and ink letters. As always, finding comfort in the aesthetics of canvases and marble I made my way to far too many art museums. Sauntering the galleries of the National Gallery of Art, I was surprised to not only find Armenian artists but also works of Caravaggio and other grand masters that had made their way into the recesses of this hilly expanse. Discovering the masterpieces of local artists like Sarian and Paradjanov, imbued with the dignity and ingenuity of this great people, gave me a further appreciation of this new culture. The first’s museum, hidden behind large, metal doors on a forgotten side street, was filled with bright palates and bold compositions evocative of Gauguin or Manet, while the latter was a quirky house adorned with collages of Soviet dolls, broken glass, and faded plastic bottles, in essence windows into a tormented and dramatic life of movie-making, oppression, and prison. Eventually, I happen upon an abandoned factory turned Contemporary Art Center, where I marveled at life-size Lipton tea bags, photographs of countrymen with no teeth, and an immense pacman-like ball of crumpled newspaper until I found someone who spoke English to interview about the center’s and Armenian contemporary art’s remarkable narration. My museum trekking concluded underneath a windy plateau just outside the city. Growing up reading Night in Hebrew School and forever conscious of the number on my grandfather’s arm, taking in the starkly dark pictures and unsettling government letters of another nation was, peculiar. There were no video clips or artistically choreographed lights that lit up the towns affected by the Armenian Genocide. Rather, pictures hung modestly on concrete walls accompanied only by the number of lives, villages, and churches stolen before their time. As I ascended back into the light of day, gazing out over a breathtaking view of Mount Ararat forty Kilometers inside modern Turkish territory, I realized that though the names and faces may appear foreign, the emotional toll was the same as my trips to the Holocaust Museum in DC or Yad Vashem.
My educational excursions were supplemented by an evening at the Opera watching grandiose hieroglyphics come to life on the notes of Aida and an afternoon in the presence of abstract figures festooned in fantastical donkey heads and stretched pieces of tie-dyed fabric at a pantomime performance. I have, quite obviously, packed a tremendous amount into a mere week in Armenia, and plan to do the same in the weeks to come as I make my way to Morocco. Exhausted from the day’s travels, I search Internet blogs or flip through Lonely Planet guides attempting to see and do everything that is physically possible. As I bored each plane/train/marshuka to reach my next destination (often running to make it in time complete with pajama pants flailing and backpack breaking- I would do well on the Amazing Race), I muse over the monuments and manuscripts that await me. However, as I gave my last teary-eyed hugs and looked down at the drawing I had been given this morning, the Cascade and Republic Square were the farthest thing from my mind. My week in Armenia was not incredible because of the paintings seen, nor will I look back on my time here with fondness because of the olden khatchkars piously solemn in a country church. Instead, my host family, exceptionally gracious relatives of my Lehigh professor, is what made Armenia come to life.
Walking the city streets with Anahit and her friends Anna and Sona, eating Gelatto, talking about the difference in American and Armenia traditions, and explaining everyone from Mashtot to Tomunyan are the memories I will cherish forever. Learning how to say ‘nose’ and ‘I love you’ in Armenian from little Sona and playing charades (I still think that my tree looked much better than the act of camping) have given me friends that I know will withstand an ocean. The conversations that accompanied Armenian herbal tea, sweetened strawberries and apricots, and countless other traditional dishes, though the latter surely put on a few pounds, gave me something I could have never received from labeled photographs or crafts behind dusty glass. The day before my departure, we took a trip to my Professor’s parent’s village. There we ran through rows of just blossoming trees, ate Barbeque with lavash in the smoke-filled yard, and listened to passionate and loving toasts to each member present. When most of us travel, we often focus on the ‘big’ sites underscored by the Travel Channel or in guidebooks, or at least I certainly did as planned these next few months of exploring. Too often we view a vacation as a destination of museums and ruins, forgetting that it is a still living place bustling with a dynamic society that offers arguably more cultural insights and meaningful experiences than any designed exhibition. Thus, as I look towards the cities still unchecked on my itinerary, visiting the Acropolis or the Western Wall have been replaced by enjoying the company and friends to be made at the top of my list.