Last week I shared with you that earlier this month I was traveling in Lebanon. I was also in Armenia. I am half-Armenian, and after the death of my father last summer, I felt an inexorable tug to stand on Armenian soil and gaze at (among other landmarks) Mount Ararat.
Some of you have asked me who I knew in Armenia.
Answer? No one. And, just for the record, I don’t speak Armenian or understand the Armenian alphabet. But I wasn’t worried before I left because surely there was an app for that on my iPhone. After all, there are apps for everything, right?
Nope. The English-Armenian translation apps I downloaded translated English into the Armenian alphabet – which was beautiful to look at but not especially helpful. Even if I knew the alphabet, my pronunciation was going to be so bad that I was likely to be ordering snails in socks the first time I wandered into a restaurant in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city.
Nevertheless, the experience there was among the easiest in my life and I have never traveled abroad and felt less like a stranger in a strange land – though, let’s face it, this is exactly what I was. Why? First of all, a lot of people speak English in Yerevan. Outside the city? It’s less common. Second, my friend Khatchig Mouradian, editor of the “Armenian Weekly” here in the U.S., had put me in the care of his friend there, Movses Babayan. Movses is a 29-year-old entrepreneur: He owns two stores that sell automotive replacement parts, and one of the shops is so futuristic it looks like a next generation Apple store.
I have a feeling that Khatchig had the wisdom to tell Movses that I am seriously common sense-challenged. The first two days I was in Armenia, Movses didn’t let me out of his sight. To wit: On our second day together we were visiting the heart of the Armenian Church, the beautiful cathedral in Ejmiatsin. Movses ran into a friend and while they were chattering away I wandered into the cathedral bookstore. My phone rang and it was Movses:
Movses: Where are you?
Me: The bookstore. All good.
Movses: Not good. I can’t see you.
I had cut myself shaving that morning and I think Movses considered taking me to the emergency room. He wouldn’t let me pay for a single meal or a single beer or a single cup of coffee.
And yet prior to the moment he picked me up at my hotel, we’d never even communicated via email.
Everyone I met in Armenia was like this. There was Giro Manoyan who took me to one of the best Italian dinners I’ve eaten anywhere (including, yes, Italy), and Movses’s father who sent me back to my hotel one afternoon with a bag of apples from the fruit trees in his backyard. There was the woman from the stationery shop who dropped off at my hotel the pen I had purchased which she had forgotten to put in my shopping bag. And then there were John and Hamo, older guys I met at the airport in Beirut a little before midnight and would become my traveling companions for the next seven hours as we waited for our 1:50 a.m. flight to Yerevan. Actual departure? 4:30 a.m. We had a lot of time to bond. Hamo made sure I tasted everything the in-flight food service offered that didn’t have meat – I’d told him I was a vegetarian – taking pride in even the apple juice.
“I know the orchard where they get their apples,” he said. “Armenian apple juice is the best apple juice.”
Incidentally, remember the horrific bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983? Hamo said he had been there and survived the cataclysm. Based on the wrenching and riveting details he shared, I have no reason to doubt him.
In some cases, people in Armenia took me under their wing because of their connection to Khatchig; in others, they did it because I was an Armenian-American who had made this pilgrimage. Regardless, everyone I met taught me something important: On occasion, you really can go home again.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 27, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17. It’s a love story set in the midst of the Armenian Genocide in the First World War. To pre-order it, click here.)