Special for the Armenian Weekly
I left Tbilisi by car after work on a Friday last month. I’d been traveling in cramped airplanes for weeks, so I opted for a private car and driver to Yerevan instead of taking the sensible and responsible minivan. Besides, I thought, it’s been two years since I was last in Armenia, it will be good to have a few solid hours of speaking Armenian with someone, assuming the driver will want to talk to me.
As we left the city limits, he asked if I minded whether he stopped at a store to stock up on vegetable oil and laundry detergent. The prices are better here, he said. Never one to get between someone and their household basics, I said it was no problem. While he was in the store, I crammed a granola bar in my mouth to stave off my hunger for a few more hours. Were he to see me eat it, his hospitality gene might activate and the next thing I know we’d be eating three courses at the nearest khorovats restaurant. I put the empty wrapper in my bag as he returned to the car. It was a narrow escape.
He honked his horn and waved at a fruit vendor on the side of the road as we headed toward the border. He was a stocky man with a thick mustache and a broad smile who didn’t appear Georgian. “Vratsi e?” (Is he Georgian?), I asked. “Che, Turk e. Azerbaijantsi.” (No, he’s a Turk. Azerbaijani.) He gives him the best prices, he said. It was a screenshot of fruit diplomacy.
I had to acquire a visa on the border because my 10-year visa had expired and I failed to renew it in time. There are times when I’d like to delegate more of my life to someone else. Anyway, a friendly man behind the window gave me the paperwork to complete and asked for the visa payment in Armenian dram. I had just arrived, didn’t have any dram, and there was no exchange in sight. The driver spotted me the cash.
A few miles later, we stopped to fill the car’s propane tank, so we had to get out of the car. I asked whether there was a bathroom there. The driver hesitated and said that the toilet across the road was “Aydqan hajokh chi” (not that fortunate). “Yes shat anhajokh toiletner em tesel im gyanqum” (I’ve seen a lot of unfortunate toilets in my life), I told him. When I asked the roadside vendors to point me in the right direction, they said, “Ayntegh e,” laughing and pointing across the road at a dilapidated outhouse, “bayts menq pataskhanatu chenq” (it’s over there, but we’re not responsible for it).
When I returned to the station, I wanted to have a cup of tea while I waited. I always want to have a cup of tea. But I still didn’t have any Armenian dram and there was still no exchange in sight. I asked if they’d accept U.S. currency. The man behind the counter gifted me a token for the vending machine that dispensed sugary tea in flimsy plastic cups. I took my tea and found a flimsy plastic chair where I could sit to take in the scene. The scene was other people sitting in flimsy plastic chairs and drinking from flimsy plastic cups. People who seemed overdressed for a propane station, people who looked like regulars there, people who inquired about a bathroom.
Once the tank was full, we set down the road for Toumanian, the village where I lived from 1997-98. I hadn’t been there in nearly 10 years, but I was pretty sure my friend’s mother would be at home if I stopped by to say hello. As we drove across the river into this little mountain village, I gave the driver directions toward the building where I had lived. It had been a difficult year of adjustment, but the family on the first floor of my building welcomed me into their home every single night for dinner and conversation and terrible television shows. I think of it now and I realize just how unaware I was of how much they were sharing with me. Not just food and cellar storage for my 50 kilograms of potatoes during the winter, but time and energy and, ultimately, love. They treated me like family and I will never forget that.
As expected, my friend’s mother was home when I arrived, along with her sister. They greeted me with surprise, but not shock, and my friend’s sister immediately set about preparing a meal for us. As she did, her mom told me about changes in the village. People were leaving the village for jobs in Yerevan and out of the country. Only old people remain, she said. The mountain location made a reliable cell phone or internet connection impossible, so she walked higher into the village to use Skype at someone else’s house. “You remember that family?” she asked. I pretended that the name sounded familiar. When I lived there the phone lines were usually down so you couldn’t call anyone from the village call center, where people openly eavesdropped on each other’s conversations, hoping to hear something exciting. Expectations have changed.
She referred to herself as “just a villager” during our conversation, which made me laugh because I feel the same way about myself. Her life is different now with a daughter in St. Petersburg and another daughter in New York. The apartment has been remodeled and it was brighter and had more conveniences. Herbs were drying on a towel on the table where we ate homemade soup and freshly sautéed eggplant and bread. We reminisced about the days when she and her husband cut and hauled wood in the forest to make a living. It was illegal and the environmental degradation and deforestation will take years of recovery, but the people of that village had little choice in the matter. As a young idealistic person from the land of plenty, that had been a hard lesson for me to learn.
The driver and I eventually made our way to Yerevan that evening. But not until we’d met a friend by the bridge in Vanadzor so I could give her a laptop I’d brought from the U.S. And not until he’d told me the unabridged version of his three divorces. For once I revealed rather little about myself, utterly fascinated with the stories of this man who had over-shared since we left Tbilisi.
When I arrived at my friend Gohar’s home, I was welcomed with some of my favorite things. Diagonally sliced soujoukh, salty string cheese, a selection of dried fruit, and a bottle of wine. Her brand of hospitality is gentle and unassuming, like a warm embrace after a long day. I told her of the day’s adventures. The toilet no one would claim as their own. The surprise visit to a place in the mountains I once called home. And the stories from the driver. She listened and laughed with me as she cooked more food and asked what I would eat for breakfast.
I went to sleep easily that night, relieved to be there in the cool air of October instead of in the sweltering August heat like my last half a dozen visits. Like lying in bed after a day of skiing and still feeling the slopes in my legs, I felt the twists and turns of conversations in my mind and the fresh air of perspective on my face. Tomorrow would be a new day of opportunities, but today had been grand.