Vartabedian: An Armenian Family’s Life in Norway

PORSHRUNN, Norway—As a young woman growing up in Providence, R.I., Christine Varadian was prominently immersed in Armenian life.

The Varadian-Johnsen family in Norway‏

When she wasn’t breaking records in the AYF Olympics, she was displaying strong leadership skills at chapter meetings and at the Central Executive level. As an active member of an Armenian Church, her heritage and religion drew no compromise, thanks to a vibrant family and community circle.

Today, she resides in Porshrunn, a cozy coastal town in southern Norway not far from Oslo with her Norwegian husband David Johnsen and four sons, desperately trying to keep her identity intact and pass this very same culture to her loved ones in a land where any semblance of Armenian is remote.

“It was a difficult adjustment at first, not knowing anyone, not speaking their language, and having moved to a community of only 25,000 residents, ” she admits. “I had lived in Boston for many years so the transition wasn’t easy. Tiny but quaint. When you’re 30 years old and no kids, quaint wasn’t what I was looking for.”

Literally, the town contained one main street, one theater, a fish shop, a few restaurants, and other small businesses. The word “supermarket” was unknown. Grocery shopping was done at a tiny mom and pop store, similar to a market her uncle Mal operated in Rhode Island.

“At the time, I found it boring and truly longed for people, noise, and action,” she recalls. “I desperately needed to feel the hustle and bustle of a city, which I would find during a three-hour trek to Oslo. Friends told me to be patient. They said my life would change once I started a family. All the things I complained about as a newlywed, I now appreciate and value more. Norway is a great place to raise your children and reminds me of what America perhaps was when my folks grew up.”

Varadian met her husband in the states in 1985 while vacationing. They started a long-distance, transatlantic relationship until they wed four years later. It was a traditional Armenian wedding in Providence with 150 guests as the community turned out to wish the couple well.

Christine Varadian-Johnsen with sons‏

“Looking back at it, I wouldn’t have blamed David for running off in fear,” she recalls. “Twenty years later, we’re still happily married with four boys. Just as I opened David’s eyes to my life as an Armenian, he opened mine to a world beyond. Today, I have the best of both worlds. Our children actually have three—their Norwegian culture, their Armenian, and we can’t forget they are also American. They have citizenship in both countries.”

Close friend Steve Elmasian remembers the wedding as if it were yesterday. The two were AYF teammates and have remained in touch over these two decades.

“Christine may be half a world away,” says Elmasian. “It wasn’t easy saying goodbye to a young lady with so much to offer our community. She went to Norway, returned for a while, but decided that was where she wanted to raise her family.”

Born to Haig and Anahid (Karentz) Varadian, an AYF Olympic king and queen, Christine attended Cranston High School where she excelled in gymnastics as well as academics (Rhode Island State Honor Society).

Her athletic/scholastic prowess continued at the University of Rhode Island where she secured a business management degree. Gymnastics shared a similar passion with track and field, especially in the long jump with a personal best 17’6″.

She wound up an illustrious AYF career with 84 points—10th on the all-time scoring list—and among the most prodigious female athletes of her generation. Her long jump record (16’10”) still stands after 32 years.

“Being raised Armenian, this was my life,” she maintains. “It is the foundation for who I am and though I live an ocean away, it will never disappear.”

Her Mom concurs. Though she would love to see her four grandsons more than once a year, she’s accepted the inevitable and yields to her daughter’s happiness—a life she chose to assume.

“I’ve been to Norway several times,” says Anahid. “Her life is full as an English teacher and her boys are busy with various projects.”

The unveiling of the Bodil Bjorn memorial in Norway‏

Christine could very well be a “stranger in paradise.” With her 16-year-old fraternal twins, a 13-year-old, and 10-year-old, she manages to return annually to her Cranston home and visit with family and friends.

“My kids know about their heritage,” she confirms. “I have strong roots and family to thank for that. As we head to Rhode Island each summer, they are exposed to their Armenian side, whether it’s family, church, or camp picnics. With Facebook and email, they manage to keep in touch with their ethnic side.”

Shortly before his death, Haig Varadian purchased a bigger computer screen so he could see his grandchildren better. He wanted the biggest screen money could buy.

“With technology the way it is today, we manage to stay connected,” Christine says. “I Skype my family and friends often and with a video camera, it’s almost like being there.”

Compared to life back home, Norway provides a more sedate atmosphere for Christine. Winters are long and dark. Norwegians do very well in Winter Olympics competition. They are born to ski. Schools are never closed to snow storms. The ground is covered from October to April.

 The Armenian side became immediately evident.

“Soon after I moved here in 1989, someone knew of some Armenians in Oslo and I made contact,” she remembers. “Before the boys came along, I grew involved in gatherings like Armenian Christmas and April 24th remembrances. We would lay a wreath on the gravesite of Frithjof Nansen. He helped Armenians a lot during the genocide.”

Another was a female Norwegian missionary named Bodil Bjorn who also helped during the genocide. A bust in her honor was unveiled in the town of Kragero. Another with Armenian connections was playwright Henrik Ibsen. He grew up in the town where Varadian now resides and there stands a small museum five minutes from her home.

To her surprise, there is a book in Armenian featuring one of Ibsen’s plays. One year, an Armenian theater group came to Oslo and performed “A Doll’s House” in Armenian at the National Theater.

More recently, a national paper published an article about how Norway and Armenia bore commonalities and how the two countries should work closer in the spirit of cooperation. It spoke of Nansen and his help with Armenians in the past. An Armenian government official visited Norway this year in a fact-finding mission.

Since Varadian lives several hours away from the capital city, she remained only partially involved. The Armenian community hails from places like Armenia, Syria, Iran, and other countries.

“I was the only Armenian American at the time,” she says. “There were 70 families of Armenian descent living in Norway. I’ve carried a tremendous amount of guilt living here. Being away from your loved ones has been a heavy weight to bear.”

One prominent resident is Dr. Boghos Yacoubian who hails from Syria and comes from a strong ARF and ARS family background.

“He recently lost his Dad as well,” says Varadian. “We shed tears together and understood one another’s sympathy during this time of bereavement. That remains the downside of living so far away.”

Two of Yacoubian’s children joined one of Christine’s sons in staging an Armenian-Norwegian performance here recently. Aleksander Varadian Johnsen, the 13-year-old, is a talented theater student who has been on stage for 6 years. At such a tender age, he writes songs and sings.

His picture is often seen on programs, billboards, and store windows, especially after securing the lead role in “Oliver Twist” with an adult theater group that toured several cities.

The trio also included Harout Yacoubian, 12, a young violin virtuoso, and his sister, Maria, 9, another violinist. The three represented the local School of Arts in Round 4 of Norway’s National Melody Grand Prix, held in Skien.

Norway won last year’s European Song Contest and is gearing up once again to choose a finalist to represent the country this May in Oslo. Armenia will be among 30 countries to compete in this year’s extravaganza after finishing 10th in 2009.

The year Varadian moved to Norway, she found herself greeting 30 Armenian children devastated by the earthquake. They were invited to a neighboring town with a large water park. As a conscientious Armenian, she felt a strong urge to reach out.

“Communication was limited,” she traces back. “I didn’t understand their dialect and they couldn’t speak English. But the smiles said more than words.”

She stayed with the contingent for two days and offered a helping hand wherever needed.

During the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Armenia competed for the first time as a nation with two former Providence AYF colleagues Joe Almasian and Kenny Topalian entered in the bobsled.

Christine’s brother Paul was instrumental in putting the “dream team” together for Armenia. Both were there, joined by their parents and sister Diane, along with several other Oslo Armenians waving the Tricolor.

Luck was on Christine’s side while getting acclimated. On foreign soil, away from her family with no language skills or job, it all changed overnight when she received a call from a high school in desperate need of an English teacher. It turned into a blessing in disguise for the newlywed.

With no experience, she was hired full-time and pursued a second degree in education, much like her late Dad who recently had a science wing dedicated in his memory at Cranston High School.

As a working Mom with four active children, Christine Varadian Johnsen wouldn’t have it any other way today.

“My closest friends here are English-speaking,” she points out. “We have an American Club, though many of us are from places like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. All of us married Norwegians and landed in Telemark. We share a lot of laughs, celebrate our national holidays together, support one another, and joke about the silly differences between this country and our respective homelands. We’ve developed a special bond as foreigners living together in Norway.”

Tom Vartabedian

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.
Tom Vartabedian

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  1. It was with great pleasure and interest that I read the story about Christine Varadian-Johnsen. She is meeting the challenge of blending both the Armenian and Norwegian cultures for herself and her children. She must be congratulaled for being so flexible. Continued success and happiness to the Norwegian-Armenian clan. Great story.

  2. It’s good to know that Christine Varadian is putting an effort to keep her Armenian ancestry. Wouldn’t it be better, however, if she had married an Armenian…?
    With mixed marriages surpassing 70-80% in certain communities, what we are seeing is the slow death of our nation. On the contrary, Turkey’s population is increasing at about 450,000 EACH YEAR… 

  3. There are “full” Armenian families that are more out of tune with their culture than this family, Hagop M. I hate that comments of this sort appear so often, and especially when the ENTIRE POINT of the article is that mixed marriages do not always spell assimilation.

  4. Great, inspiring story!
    I am researching my Armenian roots.  Part of the family was masacered in Turkey in late 19th century.  The remainder ran to Northern Caucas and then to an Armenian diaspora in Asrakhan, Russia.  One thing made me really interested in this article: the doctor by the last name Yacoubian. Part of my family has last names Yacoubianz.  I do not know if it is a common last name among Armenians or not, but I certainly would like to find out more.  Another last name is Bek-Houbianz (Russian version — Bekkhubov). Who knows?  Maybe I will hear something.  Thank you very much in advance.

  5. Dear Christine, What a nice family you have, I hope you will find four Armenian girls to your handsome intelligent sons. I am married to a foreigner and have two sons, it took me hell to find an Armenian girl, Luckily I find a dear one, LILIT .for her I wrote my poetry book “Angel Lilit Lilting via Internet” .She is half of my age but I learn from her. The problem was not with girls but by their parents they wanted pure Armenian, who said we are pure we have mixed genes through centuries, we have many kinds of DNA’s, but we have special Soul! 

    A Scientific Poetic Love Story

    Armenian Girls: Kind, Elegant

    Armenian girls: kind, elegant,

    Hearts beat genuineness of every sight.
    Glances express true thoughtfulness.

    Glitter cheerfulness in sincerity…delight.
    Armenian girls’ hair drape, beauty reign.

    Move with the winds, whispering in ears.
    To say, “I love life, have kind soul to give,
    Who deserves my love, able to keep”!

    Armenian girls’ hands point to blue skies.

    When in act turn bronzy-safe swords:
    Are small and soft can nightly engrave; can knit,
    Can paint, can maintain carts in rains left on mudy paves.

    Armenian girls’ arms tend to build arcs,

    Stir dances with silent hopeful rank.
    Goes straight rounds, glides, as crescent in sky,
    Cuddling despaired hearts left lonely… dice.

    Armenian femininity designed to bow,

    Swings serenades as sympathetic show.
    Their dance knee prays for endless gods,
    To keep them secluded of heartless hands.

    Armenian girls’—voices convey serene sounds.

    Resonate in many languages, lilting pounds.
    Revise days softly from dawn till dusk.
    Praising sunrays shine on needed grounds.


    Armenian girls’, love have holiness.

    Spark from heart, spirit, soulfulness.
    Eternal devotions no one can put counts.
    Yield the ways, for everyone asking human rights!

    Each honest lad loves them in secret, hides!

    Approach seems uneasy to reach beloved.
    Dreams persist for a man, flying of Mount Ararat.

    Who fulfills family egos, yet endless pride!

    Sylva Portoian,MD MSc MFCM FRCP

    August, 22, 2006

    Paris, France


  6. Normally I don’t comment…I just read.  It never fails that when an Armenian woman shares her journey and the story is about being married to a non-Armenian she gets this…however comment.  THAT is part of our problem.
    I am married to an Irish/Italian/American and we have a beautiful daughter.  We live in Lancaster, PA where there are about 10 Armenians.  Our daughter goes to Armenian camp every summer and she is very proud of who she is.
    I work very hard as an Armenian Activist in my community.  AND I am sure Christine does as well.
    I think it would do us well to celebrate how wonderful it is that we embrace the diversity of our community and realize that narrow tribalism is exactly what set out the Ottoman Turkish Governments progrom in the first place.
    This was/is a beautiful article and instead of alienating Armenians it embraced ALL of us. So thank you.

  7. Hagop, But you did say wouldn’t it have been better if “she” had married an Armenian. I think we all do things that other people wouldn’t approve of, but we need to do what is best for us and anyway you don’t usually choose who you fall in love with.

  8. Hello Everyone..

    I have to say that I agree with Hagop 100%.  It would be nice and GREAT if we all marry our own.. God knows how desperately we need to multiply and keep our culture alive and pure… we shed too much blood and lost too many loved ones all over the world (which is why sometimes it is hard to understand what one means when they speak of keeping things within and holding on to the little that we were able to keep)…

    However, intermarriages work ONLY if the family keeps a strong ties with the Armenian heritage.. Like Hagop said, most do not and I agree with this.

    I believe it comes from the mother because she is the main care giver and the children learn and appreciate heritage and culture through her teachings and descipline.. Fathers please do not hate me.. I speak from experience.. Well.. from what I have seen so far from my friends and also from my brother..My brother has been dating and will probably end up marrying a Bulgarian..I love that girl.. She is very patriotic and very open to Armenian culture.. however, if she does not get involved with everything the ARmenians do and represent and I know she will instill that in their kids, my brother would not even bother.. He does not care much.. So that said, I am not saying every man will be like that but if the woman is ARmenian and the man is non-Armenian, the children have a higher probability to keep their heritage strong (ONLY if she has a strong connection to her heritage herself of course)….

    Please do not discredit those who voice their opinion of the importance of marrying an Armenian vs Non-ARmenian… I deeply and truly understand why they say that and I respect that… I understand that it is hard when we are scattered all over the world and that one can’t help who he or she falls in love with….. I am an Armenian woman in my early 30s, and still unsure of my future because I am stuck in these two worlds.. I am very much nationlist and patriot ..personally I would not consider marrying anyone but Armenian; however knowing that our fate brought us to these foreign lands, I have a high possibility marrying a non-Armenian.. If that is the case, one thing I am sure of and you can trust me on this is I will never allow myself to be with sev, chaynese, spanish, korean, ect ect ect…)…I will allow allow myself to marry spitak (Amerikatsi kam evropatsi).. Even that is questionable…… for many this may sound like I am putting boundaries and requirements on love but that is how I think..for many that may sound discriminating but that is my choice..I have nothing against those who end up marrying or are married to individuals from these background but I personally can’t see myself doing it.. if i end up marrying my spitak/chermak husband..:) I know my heritage will be very prominent in my family forever and ever….just like Christine is doing.

    That said..I want to say BRAVO Christine for keeping your heritage alive and strong on a foreigh land.. The children are beautiful and I am happy to know that they represent the Armenian heritage… Hope they grow up with the ARmenian shunch, hoqi and ser…. and THANK YOU to Christine’s husband for his support and acceptance of the Armenian culture and heritage…

    My last word:  no matter where we, no matter who we marry, lets do everything to keep our Armenian flame burning strong and eternal… That is the only way we can survive and keep living as descendents of Great Armenia…

    Thank you

  9. It was so great to find this article & know that the 2 of you are still happily married! Bear fondly remembers some really fun times with David! We have been living in New Orleans for 9 years & all is well!

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