“Surch, Sara jaan?”
My host mother Armine calls from the other room. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon, and she’s asking if I want coffee. She follows my name with the sweet moniker “dear,” used by most Armenians in conversation with loved ones. It warms my heart every time. I love Armine to pieces.
“Ayo, shnorhakalutyun,” I respond.
“Mets bahjak, te pokr?” she questions. I consider for a moment, and laugh: “Mets!”
I’m sitting around the table with Armine and her two neighbors, Suzie and Ana. The white mug in front of me is standard American size, emblazoned with the orange letters “COFFEE.” I’m a tad chagrined. It’s shat mets (very large) compared to the classic Armenian pokr bahjakner (little cups) in front of my companions. And like my mug, I stand out. I am “American to the max” as an Armenian friend told me yesterday — tall, fair, perpetually smiling and far from polyglot.
You see, a few mornings ago, I asked Armine for aveli surch (more coffee). Unfortunately for this caffeine addicted American, my petite cup of coffee in the morning wasn’t cutting it. Armine, in her sweet way, brought out the big mug and we settled on a routine. Mets bahjak arevotyan (in the morning), pokr bahjak yerekoyan (in the evening).
What I didn’t know on Sunday — until I saw the four plates on the table — is that we were having guests. I definitely would have said “pokr.” Oh well.
In Gyumri, the city that is my home for the summer, I am practicing the art of being comfortable with discomfort. I have learned the beauty of stretching my mind with language learning. I have felt the pure joy of speaking — and joking — in Armenian and getting nods of understanding, toothy smiles and, sometimes, belly-shaking laughs in return.
For example, what began on Sunday afternoon as awkward silence shifted to rather stiff and slow conversation, and then blossomed into a delightful chat. There were many laments of “Hayaren shat dzvar e” (Armenian is very difficult) and “Chem haskanum” (I don’t understand), but there were also beautiful moments of connection. When I said, in Armenian, that I wanted to thank the guests for their patience, they responded that they wanted to thank me for coming to Armenia, and to Gyumri.
I brought out my family tree that my Aunt Carol had given me, only to discover that Suzie’s grandfather – like my grandfather’s family – was also from Mus! We also talked of hayeren shutaselukner (Armenian tongue twisters, i.e. every sentence we utter here). I got an absolute kick out of the ladies’ big eyes when I said “Peter Piper picked a peck of picked peppers.”
Finally, Armine and I brought out our perpetual joke. We speak Armenian in the house, as Armine doesn’t know English. Usually, she teaches me new words, but sometimes I teach her, and sometimes, the English word is harder than its Armenian equivalent, for example: cucumber. In Armenian, it’s varung. When I say Utum em varung, Armine has to practice “I eat cucumber,” and it cracks us up every time.
My life here is so very interesting. I have escaped the DC sauna for a summer of 65-75 degree weather with intermittent rain and hailstorms. Looking past the gutted cars and abandoned buildings on my morning runs, I see poppy-dotted meadows and the tips of the snow-covered peaks in the distance. It’s a strange juxtaposition.
I’ve left the manicured lawns and well paved roads of Northern Virginia for potholed roads and trash-strewn sidewalks. But I’ve also encountered a culture of some of the friendliest and warmest people I’ve ever met. The economy is depressing and unemployment eye-opening; yet, at the same time, I’ve felt the strongest urge I’ve ever had to use my skill set to contribute to society.
Gyumri is the poorest city in Armenia. It’s evident. At my new job, I’m learning so much about one of the most vulnerable populations – those affected by the trifecta of poverty, disability and femaleness. Here in Armenia, male babies are still more valued than female ones. Although it has been outlawed, sex-selective abortion was alarmingly common as recently as 2016. Disability is still stigmatized. Institutionalization or confinement to the home is more common than mainstream inclusion. Mothers — often single — are left to care for disabled children with few resources.
That’s where Emili Aregak comes in. Just a five minute walk from my home, my new workplace acts as a support and resource center for children with disabilities and their families. This summer, I am thrilled to be developing marketing strategy for their newest venture: a coffee shop employing graduates of the program, as well as their mothers. I couldn’t imagine more fulfilling work.
And if that were not enough, I am blessed to have weekly language class and excursions to boot. On Saturday, I and my program cohort visited the Areni wine-growing region, where we were hosted for lunch by a kind village family. There we supped on dolma, lavash, cheese, cucumbers, apricots, cherries and other fresh produce of the season.
Following this, we journeyed along the breathtaking road to the monastery Noravank, nestled in a ravine reminiscent of Tolkien’s most whimsical landscapes. While there, a thunderstorm caught us by surprise, forcing us to take shelter in the church’s stony interior. Candles flickered as we imagined days of old. Then, after emerging into the drizzle, we drank in the splendid sight of rugged cliffs and verdant hills draped in cloaks of fog.
There’s so much more I could say. Frequently, I think of all I get to experience as an American in Armenia and compare it to the limited opportunities people have here. My life back home, and even in Gyumri, is so very different from the lives of the locals. It has made me think. And it has made me grateful.
It’s all rather surreal.