Vartabedian: A Few Parting Memories of Armenia

Dancing fountains provide free entertainment in Republic Square.
Dancing fountains provide free entertainment in Republic Square.
As with any trip to Armenia, it’s like tooting a horn. You get out of it what you put in.

My first venture was with a tour group of friends from Merrimack Valley. We stuck to an itinerary and visited the popular sites throughout the country.

A return visit three years later put me on a different course. I traveled with a friend (Joe Dagdigian of Harvard, Mass.) and we spent most of our three weeks combing the more remote villages seldom seen on commercial junkets.

It was an Armenia not to be missed and we did it on our own with a hired driver, road maps, compasses, and a savvy guide. Dagdigian is like a human GPS when it comes to the geographics, having a place in Yerevan where we stayed and visited the many folks he knew.

Dagdigian was a sight to behold one day when he left the car in a driving hailstorm to photograph a church miles from nowhere in Lernagert. With a camera in one hand and an umbrella in another, he was a man on a mission. Sometimes you have to be a little crazy to get the best shot and he wound up with some beauts that day while I watched from a window.


There we were at Heathrow Airport in London on the second day of our trip. As scheduling would have it, we faced a 12-hour layover before boarding a connecting flight to Zvartnots Airport. As the day wore on, some familiar faces crossed our path.

The first belonged to Susan Lind-Sinanian from the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA), who was headed to Armenia for an international dance conference. Susan and her husband Gary have dedicated many years to promoting and teaching Armenian dance. After all these years, she still has the passion.

We were later joined by Dr. Levon Saryan, who was on his way to Yerevan for a proud moment: He was to be inducted into the National Academy of Arts and Sciences in Armenia—a tribute well deserved for someone who has involved himself in that medium over the decades. Saryan is also a noted Armenian numismatist (coin-collector), having written volumes on the subject.

So there we all were, miles from home, different parts of the country, meeting in the most unlikeliest of places and all for the same reason. A return trip to Armenia.


Call it destiny but the only times we were able to catch a clear view of Ararat was the morning after we arrived and the day of our departure three weeks later. It was as if Massis was saying hello and goodbye in the same breath.

To see its towering presence over the city of Yerevan is a most inspiring scene to be cherished forever. No matter how many times you photograph the mountain, it still beckons for more.


The best entertainment that money cannot buy could be found at dusk around Republic Square where the dancing fountains work their magic with some of the best music to fill the air on a spring evening. Hundreds would turn out for the nocturnal spectacle. And it didn’t cost a cent.

Just wondering …

–How come there are few obese people in Armenia when there are few gyms for those who can afford them? Is it because they eat the right foods, walk off any extra calories, and work faithfully?

–How come you can’t get a good cup of American coffee in Armenia and have to settle for Nescafe should a caffeine-attack beckon? You won’t find a McDonald’s in Yerevan, either, but there’s a KFC if you’re in the mood for chicken.

–How come more folks aren’t wearing sneakers as opposed to shoes? And if there are so many shoes, where are the cobblers to repair them? I found only one shop in Stepanagert (Karabagh) and two employees were doing such a bang-up business, they didn’t even know they were being photographed.

–With such a tight economy and “free” money at a premium, how come the casinos are still operating? A stretch of these gambling houses resembles a mini Las Vegas as you approach the downtown sector.

–Why is it that a working professional might earn as little as $140 a month but if you hire a driver with no education, he’s typically paid $40 a day plus gas, food, and hotel expenses during an overnight? One street musician I encountered with no license was earning an average month’s wages in one week from the sympathetic public.

–Why is Yerevan thriving with its economy, while 20 miles outside the mainland, there isn’t any? Why doesn’t the government do something to improve the sanitation in some of these places, especially destinations that attract tourism?

–Why are the village roads in such deplorable condition, forcing cars to zigzag their way through potholes that resemble the size of moon craters?

–Why do the exchange centers frown upon low denominations and will kick back any bill that’s worn or in any way mutilated? Tourists looking to distribute American notes in the villages better think again. Where would the recipient redeem them? For those who wish to exercise their thrift, a better alternative might be to carry around a pocket full of loose Armenian change (drams).

–With the rate of exchange nearly 3.75-1 for the American dollar, how come I wound up spending more money on incidentals than I ever imagined?


After three weeks, I returned a more conscientious Armenian, rich in spirit, more proficient linguistically, with a better appreciation for the land and its culture, more respect for its people, and a greater aptitude for our venerable history.

It only seems to get better with each visit.


Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.

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  1. Dear Mr. Vartabedian,

    I applaud you for having the desire to reach out to remote areas of Armenia, away from the touristy parts.

    I share your experience, and re-lived my Armenia trips through your words; though I spent little time in the country side. Before I visited Armenia 3 years ago, for the first time, I declined the option of going to Armenia and opted in for European countries where I would gain more understanding of their land and culture. However, I came across the opportunity to go to Armenia, and saying to myself that every Armenian should visit his/her motherland at least once, I traveled to Yerevan, with reservations.

    Since then, I have been back again and have taken time off from work in the US to support a non-profit organization, for over a month. The more I go to Armenia, the more I find that I want o be there and experience it more. There is something about that land that calls me back, and I remember my time in Yerevan, very fondly. After living there for 5 weeks in a rented apartment, I felt to have become one of the locals, and began feeling life the way it is vs. being a tourist. I dealt with water and power issues, shopping and food,  to say the least.

    I came back with a lot more appreciation for life and for what I have. I am a more conscious person towards different aspects of life, all because of my time in Armenia.

    Your questions are very valid, and I contemplated some of them myself. Though, one thing that I realized with the locals was that they were happy with what they had. To them, what mattered was to be together with family, have a simple meal and have a good time. That was the biggest lesson of my life. Sometimes, we get wound up in the luxuries of life in the Western world; we work more, forget our families and ourselves, so we can reach our goal of become rich or richer. Sometimes, we confuse our priorities.

    I wish the experience of being a true Armenian upon every Armenian, at least once. It is addictive!

  2. Mr Vardanian,

    Thank you for making us, the reader to live and feel what you lived and saw when you visited our motherland.. You touch on points that are very valid…

    I agree with you 100%.  We, who live in the United States, forget what is important.  All our time is spent worrying, stressing and thinking about how to make more money to be at a better place.  We forget that family and togetherness is the most important factor in life.  This is what our people in Armenia truly represent.  They are satisfied with the little they have.. they only need the  most essentials things…This is the reason I did not want to come back to US.. I visited in 2000 and stayed close to three months.. It was very very hard to return when you felt, tasted, and saw the life that one could have on their motherland.. all it takes is to have a stable job…

    I pray to God that one day our government will realize how negligently they have been treating Armenia.. what treasure they possess.. Without a home, we are nobody.  Without a land, we are lost souls… That is why for centuries, we have been fighting to keep the little land that we call our home.. That is why need a strong, intelligent and dedicated government.  Once we have that plus a united Armenians, we will have our homeland for generations after generations..

    God Bless Armenia and its people..


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