Back home in Washington, D.C., my mom and I joke that our metro stations are “Soviet.” They’re depressing and gray, and they just don’t work well.
Here in Yerevan, the metro is actually Soviet. Built in 1981, it was the eighth underground system to be installed in the USSR. According to legend, a little Armenian cleverness (khelatsiutyun) paved the way. At the time, only cities with one million or more inhabitants got metro systems; Yerevan did not meet this requirement. However, Armenian leaders insisted that their people needed one, and requested that a Soviet official come to Yerevan in order to assess the situation. Meanwhile, the wily Armenians brought in farmers from the surrounding villages to come in and crowd the town on the appointed day of the visit. Yerevan was so packed with people that the official was convinced, and the city got its metro. [I should mention – since my arrival in Yerevan, I learned that metro stations located in former Soviet states are actually quite nice, as they were created to uplift the common man.]
My little corner of Yerevan, which boasts a breathtaking vista of Ararat, is situated at the Northern most stop of the metro line: Barekamutyun station. Loosely translated as friendship, barekamutyun is a word that has come to embody my week here in this little nation. When I learned the word barekam during language class, I was surprised to find that it meant relative, while anker meant friend. Although I haven’t received a perfectly clear explanation, my pet theory is that barekamutyun is what results when your friends become so close that they might as well be relatives. Frequently, this process happens slowly. This past week, it happened instantly.
There are so many anecdotes I could tell you about my last seven days: visiting an amazing international church, walking miles across the city, catching a perfectly clear view of Ararat on a morning run, accidentally angering a perfume merchant, shaking hands with an Indian student four times through the course of a conversation, and an assortment of high highs and low lows. Since I don’t have enough time for all of them, I’ll settle on the stories of two oddly parallel evenings, both of which began in the belly of Barekamutyun.
On Tuesday, my intensive Armenian course began. With six hours of class per day, I knew I’d be very tired – shat hognats – after the first session. And indeed, all I wanted to do after class was return home, eat dinner, study a bit and go to bed. Like a good student, I emerged from my train and popped into one of the many underground shops at Barekamutyun in order to buy some flash cards. As I did not know the word for what I was attempting to purchase, the shopkeeper asked her colleague for help. In the process, a middle-aged customer overheard. A proficient English speaker, he volunteered to help, and became thrilled when he learned I was American-Armenian (Amerikahay). Having studied in Philadelphia, he was eager to talk and practice English and felt it providential that he had met an American in a shop that he hadn’t patronized for over a decade. He then proceeded to invite me to coffee, and I accepted, always ready for serendipitous meetings such as these.
As we walked to a cafe, I quickly realized I wouldn’t be doing much talking. The garrulous man, an Armenian Apostolic clergyman named Tigran, launched into a monologue with many tangents. Unfortunately, his English was also not quite as good as I had initially thought and I could see he had no tight time table. When we finally arrived at Areveleyon Khohanots (Eastern Kitchen), I could see that dinner, not coffee, was in my future. Throughout the course of the evening, I attempted to follow Tigran’s rabbit trails while mustering a smile every time he spoke of the “magic” of his meeting me at the metro. “Who arranged this?” he kept asking, while chuckling with a distinctive wheeze. “God,” I answered, though battling my fatigue and confusion, I was beginning to question why.
Honestly, by the end of the evening, I felt uncomfortable. As I successfully finagled my way out of giving Tigran my phone number, I reflected on lessons learned. Was this a divine meeting, I wondered? Tigran seemed so floored by the serendipity of it, while I simply questioned myself for accepting the invitation. On the one hand, I was touched by his great generosity and hospitality; on the other, I was concerned about my tendency to put myself in compromising situations. In the end, I concluded that I need to spend some time mulling over the proper balance between prudence and friendliness, especially while I live in this country.
Fast forward to Thursday. At 7 pm, I had arranged to meet up with Vardan Blbulyan, an Armenian missionary that my family supports, as well as his wife and daughter. They asked me to meet them – you guessed it – at Barekamutyun. And where did we walk to dinner? That’s right: Areveleyon Khohanots.
From the start, I loved them. Vardan and Naira welcomed me with smiles and hugs, and I knew immediately we’d be good friends. You see, before I even arrived in Yerevan, they had been praying for me and brainstorming ways for me to connect to the Christian community in Armenia as well as help in their ministry.
On the way to the restaurant, we talked of the new words I’m learning in class, my host family, and my early impressions of Armenia. It was clear to see that they were very proud of their little nation, and that made me smile.
At Areveleyon, they asked if I trusted them to order. Naturally, I did, and before long we had a veritable smorgasbord in front of us – sparkling water from Jermuk spring, tan (a refreshing drink made from blended milk and yogurt), a huge air-filled puff of shareable bread, hummus and other dips, cucumber and tomato salad, and chicken.
During the meal, we talked of how the couple came to Christ and how they met, before transitioning into a discussion of their ministry. At this point, Vardan did not hide his plans to include me in their work.
“What is your calling?” he asked me bluntly.
To be honest, I was caught off guard, and wished I had a solid answer. Really, all I could say was that I hoped to discover that in Armenia.
“I was 24 when God revealed his will to me,” Vardan said. “When is your birthday?” he asked.
“September,” I responded rather sheepishly. In September, I turn 24. That is also the time I will return to Yerevan from my summer in Gyumri.
He smiled knowingly, before telling me how he hoped I would lead an English Bible study for young people, teach English to children and help in other ways with Jah (Torch), his ministry. I can’t wait.
Mid-way through dinner, Araks, the Blbulyans’ 22-year-old daughter, joined us and we all had a merry time. Vardan told her of his plans to throw me a birthday party, and I just felt so incredibly warm inside at the knowledge of this little trio that had become my instant Armenian family.
At the end of the night, as we discussed holidays and cultural celebrations over coffee and ice cream, Vardan became entranced by an adorable three-year-old girl sitting across the outdoor patio from us. She was a sassy little thing, and came right over to our table, at which point Vardan kissed her hand. At first, I thought the Blbulyans knew the family. They didn’t.
“They really want grandchildren,” Araks whispered laughingly to me, nodding at her parents. I could see it! But more than that, I could see the beauty of the family-centered culture, and the openness and familial bonds that exist even between strangers. My meeting with Tigran made a bit more sense. Even still, I thought about the fact that in America, what I had observed would never happen. But here in Yerevan, Elena, as the little girl was called, danced with me, and before we left, she gave me the sweetest hug.
At the end of the evening, we walked to Jah, and Vardan gave me a tour. It was surreal to see the ministry that my family supports, and to hear of the wonderful work that is happening in Yerevan. As I stood on the breezy balcony of the top floor overlooking the sparkling nighttime vista of Yerevan, I began to anticipate how God might use me to help.
By that point, I truly did feel like the Blbulyuns’ family. As we walked through the market, they laughed as I named each piece of fruit like a 21st century Eve, giggled at my pronunciation struggles and made plans to have me visit their home. When we finally parted ways, I thought with awe at the beauty of the fact that God had placed me just a five minute walk from Jah. If barekamutyun does not describe the nature of the interconnected web of brothers and sisters in Christ that exist around the world, I don’t know what does.