Rendahl: Perspective

The view changes from moment to moment on this mountaintop in Dilijan, Armenia. Clouds float by to reveal a peak, and shadows fall on yet another.

Walnut tree in Dilijan (Photo by Kristi Rendahl)

It’s been 15 years since I moved to Armenia just out of college. I’m not quite as naïve or ignorant as I was then, but my formative years continue. Every day, someone says something that opens my eyes a little wider, and, like the mountains, the darkness lifts from one mystery only to cast darkness on another.

The past two years of my life have been filled with intense introspection. I haven’t liked everything I’ve found, but I have had to own it all. Armenia has reached that point, too. People leave only to return to own what is theirs, with all the good and all the bad.

Now I sit in a mountain town where there are chickens clucking at any hour. It takes me back to my first days in the tiny village of Akunk. I awoke every day to the crows of roosters and the fresh smells that can only be found in a village. At the breakfast table would be a pitcher of hot cocoa made with fresh cow’s milk. Even the finest of wines don’t feel quite as decadent in comparison.

From below rise the sounds of children playing, while crickets sing steadily at my feet. I can hear the cars driving down the highway, but I know that there are a few kilometers of rough road between me and them. My friend yells at his dog to stop barking at passers-by, and the neighbors call (again) to insist that we come over for a cup of coffee that will almost certainly involve several kinds of meat, overlapping plates of vegetables and salads, a dozen dessert offerings, and six other kinds of drink.

While the people of Yerevan sweat through the day, we in Dilijan enjoy the clear air and cool temperatures. It’s hard to believe that an hour drive makes such a difference. In Yerevan, my calves hurt from walking. In Dilijan, my muscles begin to atrophy. Maybe I should walk further up the mountain. Maybe after a few more days I won’t grind my teeth at night. And so I sit, nearly motionless, feeling compelled to do nothing except exactly what I am doing. Which is to say, nothing much at all.

There’s a walnut tree growing on the steep hill in front of me. I imagine how deep and strong its roots must be to survive, and I realize that it represents the Armenians’ own story of remaining upright and forever reaching for the light. Life can be lived on an incline. And maybe it must, if it is to mean anything.

Armenia is so different than it was 15 years ago. It has changed in ways that are superficial and profound, subtle and blatant. Then again, so have I.

It is a place where people are constantly negotiating their identities, Diasporans and native Hayasdantsis alike. For my part, I am neither, yet I am both. When I first arrived, I was simply a foreigner–possibly lost, possibly a spy, definitely an idealistic youth, but mostly foreign.

Over the years, as more and more diasporans have visited and repatriated to Armenia, I have been assumed a fair-skinned diasporan. This past week, several people have asked if I’m a Hayaget, the word for Armenian scholar. Well, maybe, if they accept my life as course credit.

Hybrid identities and all, my friend and I will drink a bottle of Armenian wine tonight, accompanied by the salty, smoked cheese that I always rush to the market to buy on arrival. By the end of the bottle, we’ll have made sense of nothing, but feel better about the complicated mess that is life in Armenia, and everywhere.

The nights are quiet in the mountains of Dilijan. I’ll wake early, but leave my bed only after much deliberation and delay. When I’m back in Yerevan, the buzz of the city will move me along, and I will let serendipity rule the day. Only when I let serendipity rule do I get exactly what I didn’t know I needed. With all the good and all the bad.


Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl is associate professor and director of the nonprofit leadership program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Prior to starting with MSU in 2017, she worked for over 20 years with nongovernmental organizations on several continents, including living in Armenia from 1997-2002. She speaks Armenian and Spanish.

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  1. Kristi,
    Have fun, and enjoy your life, even in Armenia, with Armenian red wine, or Ararat brandy if you can handle it!!!

  2. Kristi,

    You made me want to go to Dilijan. You are such a good writer. It’s almost like I breathed the fresh air and tasted and smelled the food you described, especially the cocoa.

    You say Armenia has changed, in ways that are superficial and profound. Can you, please, name one positive change that comes to your mind first? Thank you.

  3. Gina,

    Thank you, thank you for the kind words.

    People smile more, and for barely any reason. And when you ask how people are, they start by saying things are normal, good, or even great, instead of listing the problems.

    Most people have water and electricity all the time. There are lodging options all over the country. Tourism options have grown considerably. The quality of products made in Armenia — crafts, wine, food, etc — continues to rise. People are not as apathetic about the present and the future.

    Sorry, that was more than one. ;)


    • Kristi:

      good to hear before/after observations from an impartial person.
      I do know you are not entirely impartial: you have warm feelings for Armenia.
      But you would not make things up either, just because you like Armenians.
      So your observation of people in general having a more positive outlook on life is quite encouraging.

      We all know RoA still has lots of problems. But it is good the hear there is progressive improvement – year in, year out.

      (one problem that I am aware of which is entirely internal: apparently there is a nonchalant attitude of residents throwing trash anywhere they please. Hopefully the new generations will not tolerate it for long, assisted with stiff fines like it’s done in California)

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