Rendahl: First Place

I meet Armenians wherever I go, usually the first place I enter. It’s like…it’s like…well, I’d say bees to honey, but I hate to compare myself to honey at the risk of suggesting I’m sweeter than I really am. But you know what I mean.

I meet Armenians wherever I go, usually the first place I enter.

It was evening by the time I reached Damascus by train from Aleppo. I’d reserved a room at a hotel in the new part of the city. On the train, I’d made friends of sorts among the train personnel, and they had decided the next step of my fate by putting me in some taxi. The driver was quickly impressed by my paltry knowledge of the Arabic language—some 40 words plus the ability to read the alphabet. I read the traffic signs aloud as I’d done, much to my father’s chagrin, since I was a child. “You stay three days, three days and you speak Arabic,” he said with a dramatic sweep of the hand. Yes, I thought, three days indeed.

He escorted me into the hotel lobby and waited until I’d checked in, either to be assured that I was taken care of, or to be assured that I am where I said I’d be. Whichever the goal, he was delighted to receive a tip, leaving with the grandest of smiles. As a woman who’s traveled alone a fair bit, and in a world of primarily male taxi drivers, I’m inclined toward tipping to encourage good behavior as much as good customer service.

On the surface it was a nice hotel. The rooms were clean, the service was adequate, the location accessible. But there was a creepy feel to it: the kind of place where you wondered who was watching and how. No matter, I had nothing to hide and there’s not much I could have done about it if I did.

The next morning I set off to find a camera shop. I’d been in Syria for several days and had neglected to bring one. Just across several lanes of chaotic traffic was a photography store. A minute after entering I heard someone say, “Ayo.” “Duq hay eq?” (Are you Armenian?) I asked incredulously. The lion’s share of the Armenian population in Syria is in Aleppo, so what were the chances that I’d immediately run into Armenians in Damascus? But that is exactly what happened.

Having been given the name of a family to contact in Damascus, I asked the store owner if he knew them. The last name was familiar, so he called someone else with that name. Within 10 minutes, the store owner and the family I was to contact had concocted a plan for me to meet them in the store the following day. It won’t surprise you to learn that when I met the family the next day, they insisted that I check out of my hotel and stay in their home. The rest of the day and the next were filled with sight-seeing around the countryside and far too much eating.

When I first arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I was introduced by a colleague to a man at the baggage carousel. He was offering advice about the city and said that for good meat we ought to visit the Armenian Club. The Armenian Club, I thought! And so it became my mission to eat at the Armenian Club sometime during my one-week stay in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, East Africa, of all places.

Once our schedule allowed, and my travel companions from the U.S. and Sweden acquiesced (because who actively seeks out Armenian food in Ethiopia?), we went there for dinner one night. We were not disappointed. The Armenians there for dinner, as it turned out, were proud to be actively involved with Armenia, and their families had been in Ethiopia for several generations. As stunned by my presence as I was by the existence of an Armenian restaurant in Ethiopia, they sent over wine and Armenian foods for us to try. It was perfect.

Just a few months ago I went to visit a close friend, Kirstin, in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s no secret that Utah is home to a large Mormon population, so I wouldn’t have expected to meet many—or any—Armenians while there. As it turned out, my friend’s real estate agent was Armenian. So, true to form, I asked if we could have coffee with her during my visit. And, within minutes of sitting with Miriam, she’d invited me to an Armenian girl’s baby shower two days later. Why not, I thought. She put me on the phone with the girl’s father to be sure that it was acceptable to crash their party.

Of course, I was graciously accepted among the 50-plus Salt Lake City Armenians (incidentally, I’m told that these were Armenians who had not converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints, as those that do are less or not at all involved with the Armenian community). While there I met some proud Armenians of several different generations, bought Armenian foods for my host at the Armenian-owned store, and heard entertaining stories about how the community hosted the Armenian contingent of the 2002 Winter Olympics held there.

After all of these unexpected encounters with Armenians, it should come as no surprise that while in Tbilisi, Georgia a few weeks ago, I met yet more Armenians. My hotel was somewhere, I don’t know where, within the city limits of Tbilisi. I took a taxi into the old city, a place that looked absolutely charming on the drive from the airport the evening prior.

I wandered aimlessly around the old city, wondering what exactly I should see because I never look at travel guides. Finally, I entered a souvenir store. Might as well know what they’re proud of in Georgia, I thought. On the right was Armenian cognac. I found this curious, because I know Georgians are most proud of what is native to their country. And then I heard it: the familiar sound of the Armenian language. Of course, the store was owned by an Armenian.

“Where’s the Armenian church?” I asked, once I’d confirmed that the owner and sole customer were Armenian. A little befuddled, they explained that it was just around the corner up the stairs. After a brief exchange, the man walked me there and showed me the grave of the Armenian troubador Sayat Nova, who died in 1795, before we went into the Batarag for a while.

When we left the service, he introduced me to Diana, a beautiful, young Armenian in the community. Why it is that I’m so excited to meet Armenians around the world, I’ll never quite understand (nor will I ever try to understand). In any case, these were people that anyone should be glad to meet. Not before he offered a SIM card for my short stay, I left to spend some time alone in a cafe. I’d just come from an intense week of socializing in Yerevan, so I needed a moment to myself.

No sooner had I returned to my hotel room, though, than had I written Diana on Facebook to ask if she’d be free later in the week. To my great benefit, she was, and so we connected that Thursday afternoon to walk up to a high spot for a city panorama, visit the mosque now frequented primarily by Azeris, and tour the bath district. After we’d had our fill of the sights, we sat down for a leisurely tea and dinner in an outdoor restaurant in the old city. When we bid farewell, I wondered why we hadn’t met before then, and why we couldn’t be neighbors. I left the next night.

Weeks, months, and years later, I sit wondering whether these accidental encounters were accidental at all. Most people, it would seem, visit many places before they know what they like. Their affections are diluted, their attention scattered, their excitement spent. Is it possible to become authentically engaged once you’ve given your all to another? Is it possible not to compare, but to simply love, what is? Is it possible to want what you find?

Originally from a family farm in North Dakota, Kristi Rendahl lived and worked in Armenia from 1997-2002 and visits the country regularly. She works with the Center for Victims of Torture as the organizational development advisor to 10 torture treatment centers around the world, and is pursuing a doctorate in public administration. Rendahl writes a monthly column for The Armenian Weekly. She resides in St. Paul, Minn.

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  1. Excellent. Don’t ever let Kristi stop writing this cheerful column. Her themes are universal. Although Armenians are right to extol her as an “ABC” (Armenian by Choice), they should expect other nations to claim her too. The three questions at the close are mysterious. They could be rhetorical. Or she could be seeking answers from her readers. If the latter, the contents of this column, along with many other columns drawn from her rich experiences, make it clear for us. For her, authenticity is timeless. Love just is and is beyond comparisons. And she clearly wanted (needed and deserved) what she found in those first places. 

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