“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?” – Mr. Bennett, Pride & Prejudice
I truly wonder what would have happened if I’d said “ayo.”
On Thursday, as I sat placidly studying Armenian in my apartment complex park, I noticed a woman approaching my bench.
Plopping herself down beside me, she began to speak rapidly, leading me to interrupt with my stock plea for pity: “Knerek, chem haskanum, khosum em hayeren mi kich” (“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, I speak only a little Armenian.”) My words at least gave context to my stuttered responses, but they – alas – did not slow her speech.
And then, even with my limited comprehension, I began to understand her intentions. “Amusnats’ats es?” she asked inquisitively. Uh oh. This woman wanted a daughter; as in, she was wife-hunting for her son (a fine, handsome boy so she said). And with characteristic Armenian bluntness and a little bit of flattery, she was proposing the idea of marriage. Motioning to my face, she exclaimed: shat sirun (very pretty) and then to my book: khelatsi (clever) too!
Maybe, when I laughed in disbelief, she thought I said hahaha, the Armenian slang for “yes, yes, yes.” For far from discouraging her, my nervous chuckles seemed to give her hope. Not too long after, we were joined by her daughter-in-law and the woman eagerly pointed at the girl’s gold band, as if to say: “You too could be my daughter!”
Only after extricating myself from the awkward situation, did I imagine what would have happened had I assented to the offer. Maybe an invite to dinner, that very night? Engagement by the end of the week? The thought made me chuckle. Like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, I felt excessively diverted, but it was all so strange.
According to my friend Vardan, I’m truly Armenian now. His reasoning: I drank the famous spring water that bubbles into Geghard monastery from the surrounding verdant hills. From my perspective, when you combine that with an indirect marriage proposal and participation in Armenia’s most famous holiday, I guess Vardan’s right.
Last Sunday, during the feast of the Transfiguration, Vardan’s family and I made the beautiful trip to Geghard. I suppose I received a double baptism into Armenia culture, because Sunday was also the festival of Vardavar. On this day, it’s socially acceptable (and even expected) to soak strangers with water. Hoses and water guns hit the streets and anyone is a fair target. It’s merciless. As we motored through the hills and valleys of the villages, we’d roll up the windows as defense against the bucket barrages of mischievous village children enjoying their favorite day of the year.
When we finally arrived, I was struck by the splendor of the majestic stone structure nestled into the craggy plunging hillside. But despite the beauty, I won’t sugarcoat the experience. As beautiful, ancient and awesome as it was, the monastery was flooded with people. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the heat for an hour-long Armenian liturgy was difficult to say the least, and I was eager for the service to end.
As I have frequently felt in my five weeks in this country, adapting to a new culture is a grab bag of emotions. Sometimes I can feel sullen while standing in a 12th century sanctuary, and I try to remind myself that it’s OK, as long as I generally seek to be optimistic and keep things in perspective.
My new world is replete with juxtapositions of the lovely, repulsive, worrisome and endearing. There’s little privacy, abundant trash, overfeeding, unwanted proposals, ubiquitous smoking and intense heat. There’s breathtaking greenery, ancient architecture, haunting music, overwhelming generosity and incredible warmth.
If I am to be truly Armenian, I will do as I do in America: stay fiercely loyal to what the country does well, and seek, through small means or large, to aid in changing what it does not, even as I strive to work on the good and bad in myself.
As usually happens, I felt refreshed in body and soul once the wind began whipping through my hair on the return drive home. The views were magnificent, the traditional Armenian sweet bread in my hands (gata) was incredibly fresh and the knowledge of my ridiculously wrapped up hair put a smile on my face.
The road kept things exciting, as we navigated uneven terrain, cattle crossings and water attacks. Alluring fruit stands dotted our path, and we could hardly resist them. It is customary before a journey to be wished “Bari Janapar,” or “Kind Roads.” I couldn’t help but see the pun, as by the end of the journey, we had purchased two types of cherries, raspberries, black currants and gooseberries.
Before they sent me back home to Gyumri, Vardan’s family treated me to a late lunch at a lovely restaurant hidden in the trees next to the Genocide Museum. This was another juxtaposition that piqued my interest. What a joy it was to celebrate friendship and family in the midst of natural beauty, when such a stark reminder of Armenia’s past lay not 500 feet away.
When it came time to leave, Vardan’s children Araks and Gorgen, and his nephew, Andranik, waited until I was safely on my bus. Although I assured them that they did not need to see me off, they insisted, reminding me that I was family now and that this was what family did. They then bid me a beautiful farewell, slipping a selection of fruit from our trip into my hands for the journey.
Sandwiched like the proverbial sardine between two Armenian men – one gold be-toothed, and the other the owner of an incomprehensible husky voice – I tried as best I could to get comfortable for the two hour ride ahead. My thighs were cemented together with sweat, and the strong breeze (unlike the pleasant aforementioned wind) felt like a hair dryer on high.
In the middle of this great discomfort, four Armenians (the men to my side and the women behind me) peppered me with inquisitions. Yet again, my knowledge was not expansive enough to cover their curiosity, and my smile battled with the familiar angst rising in my breast.
The man with the gold tooth asked me a question, and after some attempts to decipher, it seemed as though he were asking if I liked Armenia or America better. “Ch’gitem (I don’t know),” I answered rather truthfully, not knowing the exact nature of the question or my feelings on the subject. Every culture has its strong suits, and every place has its challenges. Until I work out my thoughts, I’ll plead chem haskanum (I don’t understand) …and I’ll be careful with my hahahas.