Seferian: Surreal, Funny, Extraordinary…Armenia!

Any person who has spent time in Armenia will have a story—or seven—to recount. I find that, in all my years in the country, I have come across some pretty interesting occurrences. All right, maybe “interesting” is too broad a word to use, but such mini-adventures in the Homeland can be anything from simply funny to downright surreal.

Any person who has spent time in Armenia will have a story—or seven—to recount.

There was a blog once upon a time to document such stories, like the time I was stuck in an elevator. There was fortunately somebody in the corridor of the building who shouted at us that we were too heavy, and that we needed to lift and balance ourselves on the handles inside. Sure enough, once we got our feet off the ground in a performance of pretend gymnastics, we started to move again. Note that the mass within was entirely conserved. Apparently, the mechanism that determined the weight limit of the elevator needed to be fooled.

Or the time my brother ordered a cheeseburger at a restaurant. What did he get? A bun, with cheese. Just cheese. When asked, the waiter patiently explained to us, “‘Cheese’ Anglerenoum ‘paneer’ e nshanakoum” (“‘Cheese’ means ‘cheese’ in English”). So, clearly, that’s all there was to a cheeseburger. What were we complaining about? Fast-forward a few years to that very same restaurant, and the menu contains a pizza “quattro formaggi”—with five kinds of cheese.

And who can ever forget that first ride down from Zvartnots Airport into the city? What is with all those casinos? The last thing anyone would expect. There’s a new one now, past the other edge of town, which consists of two buildings that look like they are mimicking Ararat. That design seems like a gamble all right.

I took a long-distance marshrutka (mini-bus) ride recently. The van came with a television, and the driver had put on a DVD that blasted one rabiz music video after another. I didn’t know that genre of music was such an immense industry. So many songs, so many clips! And their technical quality was outstanding. But Armenia is missing out. It appears by the shooting locations and all the concerts and awards ceremonies that Los Angeles is the major rabiz music hub of the world. How’s that for surreal?

And then there was my first time in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh). (That in itself is a thought-provoking experience.) One day, we were offered a ride from Shoushi to Stepanakert in the local hospital’s ambulance. The men who worked for the hospital were doing us a kindness, and I readily hopped onboard, when suddenly one of our party asked, What if the ambulance were needed then? Indeed, it hadn’t occurred to me. So I guess the surreality starts to grow on you. Or maybe you grow into the surreality.

There are so many of these stories. So many.

I happened to be walking past the U.S. ambassador’s residence one evening (additional side question: In how many places in the world can one randomly walk past the presidential palace, the parliament, the American or any ambassador’s residence?) and the house directly across from it—the house of just a regular Armenian family—was playing loud hip-hop gangster music. I don’t know what Her Excellency thought of this scenario, but I found the juxtaposition to be quite hilarious.

There are many things, big and small, to laugh at and to complain about in the Homeland, as well as things that, simply put, cause a double-take. Every place in the world, admittedly, has its own idiosyncrasies. However, even though I can’t say I’ve been everywhere, Armenia seems to have much more than its fair share of quirks that make an impression.

Like the way roads are maintained around here. What is up with the cutting off of squares of asphalt? They never re-do entire roads; quadrilaterals of asphalt are drilled into and filled. In between the slicing off and filling, though, they are often left to be added to Armenia’s burgeoning pothole collection. We have the neatest, most rectangular potholes in the world.

Now, for the cold, calculating, Western professional, these sorts of things are just plain bad for business. And, indeed, many negative practices are being recognized as such and are being done away with, slowly but surely. This is presumably for the better. And yet, it is undeniable that there is something sweet, down-to-earth, and outright cozy about these sorts of things.

I was going in the Yerevan metro the other day, and a stranger one turnstile over put in a metro token for me. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “What? Go on.” I replied, “Why? Why are you paying for me?” He got upset, turned over the turnstile (thereby wasting 50 drams), and said, “Fine! Whatever! I was trying to be nice!” and walked away in a huff as I called after him in vain, “But why? You didn’t have to do that…”

I fear we are going to lose this personal touch in Armenia over time. Already, the difference is evident in social attitudes when comparing the way people conduct themselves in Yerevan, for example, and elsewhere in the country. Perhaps it is a good thing, perhaps not in some ways. Meanwhile, frustrating though it may often be, there can be very memorable moments—one way or another—in our very special Homeland.

Nareg Seferian has lived, studied and worked in New Delhi, Yerevan, Santa Fe, Boston, Vienna, Istanbul and Washington, DC. His writings can be read at

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  1. There are so many indeed of these stories. Thank you for sharing some of them Mr. Seferian. Please keep them coming.

  2. I was hysterically laughing while reading your article.  My husband and I returned only several weeks ago from Armenia. He, for the seventh time and for me my very first. He leads a trip every July for Fuller Housing for Armenia, where the team helps builds homes for those in need.  I was so taken by the country!  The Casinos, the roads, the people, the Lavash, the Kata bread and the country side.  My very first view of Armenia in the morning when I awoke was that of Mt. Ararat!  Truly tears came to my eyes!  I could not believe that I was truly in the homeland.  To top it off, speaking of surreal…. as I walked wide eyed through the streets of Yerevan, all my ears heard was Armenian!!! I knew just enough (kech ma) to get by. But to hear it constantly was amazing. Yes, the women wear heels high enough to give you a nose bleed and slacks that seemed has if they were steamed on,, but they have class!  Of course with my sneakers I stood out like a soar thumb!  But so taken am I with Armenia and its people that I look forward to going again next July. This time I will be armed with enough of the mother tongue. Funny enough the locals told me I spoke well. I actually think they said that to encourage me to speak more, and I did. Thank you again for making me laugh and remembering even though it is still fresh. My physical body is back in the states, but my heart and my soul were left behind in Armenia!!!!

  3. Nareg, your article made me LOL and now I can’t resist sharing a few of my personal favorite “only in Armenia” stories…

    1.) My friends and I sat down in a restaurant with the word “pizza” in its name only to be told that they weren’t making any pizza that day.

    2.) I was spending time in Yerevan with my friends from Etchmiadzin and their three year old daughter was not with them. When I asked where she was, they informed me that she has a fever and possibly the chickenpox because she’s been eating too much ice cream.

    3.) One of my favorite (albeit awful) translations: every menu lists “Sides” as “Garnishes” (i.e. french fries are a garnish)

    4.) I am always asked the same set of questions in the same order by taxi drivers, shopkeepers, etc. An example of a typical conversation that I have with a stranger in Armenia:

    Stranger: Do you have kids?

    Me: No

    Stranger: Are you married?

    Me: No

    Stranger: How old are you?

    Me: 29

    Stranger: What’s the problem?

    5.) My taxi driver takes out a pack of cigarettes and instead of asking if I mind if he smokes, he asks if I would like one. Armenian hospitality even in a taxi!
    6.) And my all time favorite: a local asked to marry me so he could come to America and get his green card.  He assured me that, “the love will come later”.  As tempting as this offer was, I politely declined. :)

    The irony of it all is that reading your article and thinking of my own ridiculous Armenia stories make me miss the Motherland even more!

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