When I first moved to Armenia, I lived in a small village in the Kotayk region. I lived with a family of four on the edge of town, and drank fresh hot cocoa many mornings. It was there that I began learning the Armenian language. Classes were four hours a day and four days a week, but it was from my host family that I really learned to use the language. You can imagine that 4 hours is a long time for class, but you can also imagine that the other 12 waking hours each day were plenty exhausting, too, for someone who was just learning a new language.
Thank goodness for my host brothers. They were 10 and 13 years old then, Argishte and Garik. Kids have an incredible ability to repeat things ad nauseum, and repetition is the only way to learn a language. Over and over they would correct my pronunciation of letters that don’t exist in English but sound so much like b or p or g or k or d or t. “What’s the difference?” I would ask until they trained my ear to recognize the difference. My host father had far less patience than his sons. A typical approach for those who aren’t accustomed to foreigners, he would speak louder instead of slower. “Yes xul chem,” I said with exasperation, “hayeren chem haskanum!” (I’m not deaf, I don’t understand Armenian!)
After two months of studying the language, we were told where we would serve in the country, and given instructions for how to travel to our sites alone. A volunteer from near my site placement took me to the train station in Yerevan and gave me a slip of paper with the name of my destination on it. Toumanian, it said. He encouraged me to sit with people and ask them where I should debark the train. “Simple enough,” I thought.
I sat in a section occupied by two women and a man. I asked for their help in finding my destination. I repeated Toumanian several times and they responded with what seemed like questions, but which I didn’t fully grasp. Eventually, they seemed satisfied that they knew where I was going, and the women made an executive decision that the man would accompany me, because he was going there, too.
The man and I got off at the train station where they said Toumanian was located. Then we started walking up a hill. And we kept walking. We walked through orchards and sheep herds and open mountain meadows. We walked for hours. I was wearing a shirt, long skirt, and flat sandals (I was more sensible then). He carried the small bag I’d brought with a few things for an overnight stay. I was sweaty and tired, not to mention completely bewildered by how far this town was from the train stop. “I wonder if there’s any other way to reach this place,” I wondered, but was quietly pleased that I was having such an authentic Peace Corps experience.
Finally, we arrived at the village and went directly to his family’s home. I explained that I needed to go to the Mayilyan family’s home. They told me that there was no such family in the village. “I’ll find them,” I said with a confidence so ignorant that it makes me smile now. They laughed, but were perplexed about what to do with me. So we ate–the Armenian default for any situation.
Over the course of our meal, I looked at the piece of paper with instructions again, and then turned it over. The other side said Tsakhidzor. “Tsakhidzor,” I said aloud and they responded with a collective, “ooooh,” as if to understand something that made it all clear. With a mixture of gestures and words, they communicated that there were two towns named Toumanian, but that the other had the second name of Tsakhidzor. That town, as it turned out, was down the other side of the mountain. Had I stayed on the train for another 30 minutes, I’d have found it. No doubt I was told this when given the instructions, but I was probably too nervous or distracted (or dumb) to remember it. Whatever the case, I was in the wrong town. Damn.
And so I set out on the road with the man who’d just accompanied me up that mountain. On the way down we crossed more meadows and traversed more forests and eventually walked alongside the river to reach Toumanian–also called Tsakhidzor, as you now know–and quickly found my hosts. I tried to explain the irony of how “Tou” sounds like “two” and that there were two towns named Toumanian. The irony was lost in translation, so I just amused myself.
I don’t remember the name of the gracious man who took personal responsibility for my safety and mission that day. He drank a cup of coffee, a glass of water, and then headed back up the mountain. I can only hope that he knows his kindness remains among my most memorable experiences with Armenians. It’s in part because of him that I’ve come to expect generosity and hospitality from Armenians, even though my appreciation for it has grown tenfold. And his actions taught me how I want to live. Just imagine the power of an entire people like this “paying it forward.”
A couple of months ago some college-aged boys from Saudi Arabia ended up lost on the corner where I live at about 9 in the evening. They’d gotten off at the wrong bus stop and didn’t know how to get home. One boy was staying with a host family, and the other two were staying in campus housing. They’d been in the U.S. less than a month and had limited English skills, so the combination of iPhone maps, walking directions, and bus routes was too much to expect them to comprehend. “I’ll just take you,” I said, as I ran into the house to get the car keys. After getting into the car, one of the boys said in halting English, “This is the nicest thing that’s ever happened to me.” I laughed and said that I hoped much nicer things would happen to him in his life than someone driving him a couple of miles home.
Apparently he’s never been to Armenia.