Hasmik

There she was standing before me—(we will call her Hasmik)—the woman who would be my host mom for the next two months in Armenia. She was a short, thin, middle-aged woman, with short black hair and pale skin, wearing a fitted silk black tank top and loose jeans folded up at the bottom. She had on no bra and no makeup, with bags under her eyes and a smile not quite as reassuring as I had hoped.  

I remembered the long speech our executive director, Sevan, had given the Birthright Armenia volunteers a few hours before: 

“Your host families might be a little cautious and distrustful when you first meet.  Most of them hold an opinion of Diasporans; they think you have an air of superiority, and it might take some time to build trust. Talk to them. Have no expectations. Buy groceries—cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread. Try to live by their rules. Your home won’t be the same as it was where you came from, but get used to it. The key word is immersion. If you were here as a tourist, you’d stay at the Marriott for two weeks. You’re here to become immersed with the land, the culture, and the people.” 

Hasmik was standing off to the side, leaning against the wall, as the driver left the rest of my bags in my new room. “Hi, how are you?” I asked in the little Eastern Armenian that I knew how to speak so far. 

“Fine,” she said softly.  The driver left us, although I hoped he would stay in order to ease some of the awkwardness in the room. 

“You have a very nice home,” I said. From the outside, the apartment looked old and rundown, but on the inside, it was fairly modern, neat and spacious, with oriental rugs, bright yellow pillows, and a fox fur with the head still attached on the couch as decoration. This would have been strange to any other person except one whose family had a similar decoration in their home. I always thought it was bizarre and barbaric, but now I would make this fox head my new ally. 

“My aunts have something just like this,” I said, stroking the fur of the animal as we sat on the couch.  

“Ha?” she asked. “It’s from Ukraine. My daughter bought it for me.” “

“Oh, your daughter is in Ukraine?”

“Yes, I have three daughters—two of them moved to Ukraine and got married. They are older and they each have kids.” She spoke so fast and in Eastern Armenian, a dialect that sounded so different from the one I spoke, that it seemed like a completely different language.  Although I was fluent in Armenian, it was in the Western dialect, and already I was straining trying to understand her. 

“The other one, who you’ll meet, lives here with me. I’ll show you pictures someday.” 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you,” I said. “What was that again?” 

“My other daughter, she lives here. She’s your age. You’re 28, right? She’s a few years younger. She’s still sleeping.” 

I nodded and smiled.

“You must be tired. Do you want to take a nap?” 

“Sure,” I said. “It’s been a long flight.” 

I went to my room and started to unpack, which mainly consisted of organizing my suitcase and hanging up my dresses on the coat rack near my bed. I expected my living quarters to be in a tiny corner of the apartment, but it was as big as my room at home, with a bed in the middle of the room, a nightstand and a little table with a mirror near the balcony  It overlooked Vernissage, the most popular shopping district in Yerevan. The curtains on the balcony, adorned with handcrafted little butterflies, made me think that Hasmik and I might just get along. I continued unpacking, leaving the door open in case Hasmik wanted to come in.

“Vayyy, look at all those shoes! You must have 20 pairs here!” she commented on my neat array of flip-flops, sandals, high heels and one pair of sneakers. 

“I have a problem overpacking,” I laughed. 

“Taleen, the girl who stayed here before you, only brought five,” she laughed and touched my arm.  

“I might bring 20 shoes, but only end up wearing five or so. Your sandals are so cute, too,” I commented on her shiny black flip-flops with a silver flower attached on the middle.

“Merci, this is my favorite pair.” She lifted her foot up to show it off, then scanned the room some more. 

“Two suitcases! You are only here for six weeks, Nayiri jan!” Jan is a word often used in Armenian after someone’s name as a sign of endearment. I looked at my suitcases and shoes, already feeling like the spoiled American who owns too many things and hoping Hasmik didn’t see me as one.

 “Do you want some soorj?” she asked. 

“Sure, I’d love some.” 

The kitchen was small, but filled with the necessities, salt, pepper, pita bread, peaches, oghi (vodka) and soorj (Armenian coffee). A TV with antennas was playing Russian soap operas in the background. “What is this about?” I asked. She tried to explain one of the many convoluted plot lines, but the only words I picked up were rich, poor, Russian gangs, lies and love. “Well, that sounds pretty similar to the ones in America, too, if you substitute the word Russian for Italian.” 

“Ha?” Hasmik let out a loud, enthusiastic laugh, a sound that I’d hear often later and could still hear to this day. Hasmik continued watching the soaps and talking to me. “Ooordegheets es?” (Where are you from?) 

“I’m from New York,” I said, “and my family is from Lebanon.” 

“Oh, New York. I’ve seen it in pictures, tall buildings and bright lights. You know what country I am dying to visit? Paris!” 

“Me too,” I said. “I’ve been wanting to go there forever! It seems so romantic and beautiful. Maybe one day.” 

“Why haven’t you gone yet?” she asked. 

“Well, I wanted to come to Armenia—it’s my homeland. Besides, maybe one day when I can afford it, I’ll visit Paris,” I said, hoping that she’d realize that even though I have 20 pairs of shoes, I’m not the type who can afford to travel wherever and whenever I want. 

“I think it’s great what you all are doing—coming back to Armenia to work here. It is your country, too,” she said. 

 “Yeah, you’re right,” I smiled, surprised, wondering if she really meant what she said. “Last time I visited in 2007, a cab driver once told me I’m not a real Armenian because I don’t live here. But I was raised Armenian, I speak Armenian. My roots are in Armenia and I really do love Hayastan.” I wondered if Hasmik really believed what I said.  

Then, Hasmik introduced me to her daughter. 

“Are you awake?” she asked Takuhi, which means queen in Armenian. “It’s 1:00 pm already. Wake up. Nayiri is here.” Takuhi murmured something in her half-conscious state and rolled around, almost naked under her sheets. Takuhi was very quiet and very skinny, a college student studying biology and surprisingly not mathematics, a more popular major in Yerevan. 

 ***

Dear Mom, 

I just wanted to let you know that I arrived safely in Yerevan. I don’t know how to call home yet (I tried and failed) but I will try to find out tomorrow at the office and call you then. My host family is nice—the apartment is sort of run down and very hot with no fans or AC, but the host mother seems very hospitable and friendly and my room is very spacious. I feel a little weird and lost now not knowing anyone, but I am sure that will change soon. Talk to you tomorrow.
Love,
Nayiri 

***

The next morning, waking up in a still unfamiliar room, I was glad to walk out and see a more familiar face. “Let me know when you want to take a shower. I’ll turn it on for you,” Hasmik said. Why does she want me to let her know? Turn it on? Can she intuitively predict my confusion when it comes to turning on different shower faucets? 

“I’m ready,” I said, holding my towel and shower caddy in my hands, feeling slightly like a foreign exchange student in a Soviet-style dormitory. Hasmik threw a match in the water heater inside the shower and told me to wipe the floor clean when I was done, since there was no shower curtain. Well, this is different, I thought, as I held up the shower rod to different parts of my body, at the same time taking in the smell of gas and the view of a small fire in the tank in front of me. 

“I may go out tonight with some volunteers,” I told Hasmik, as I ate the boiled egg with pita bread that she would make for me for breakfast every morning. 

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, washing the dishes. 

“Is there a spare key I can have to get in the apartment? I don’t want to wake you up.” 

“I don’t give keys, Nayiri jan. I just stay up and open the door. What time do you think you’ll be home?” 

“I’m not sure—one, maybe two.” 

“Vayyy, that’s late! I hope you can be here sooner. I just can’t go to sleep otherwise. Taleen, who stayed here before you, kept saying ‘why can’t I stay out late,’ and I told her ‘you are like my daughter and I will be so worried about you if you are not home. I won’t be able to go to sleep.’” Guilt trips and overprotective Armenian moms—suddenly I was feeling more at home. 

“I’ll try,” I fabricated the truth in the same way I used to with my mom when I was a teenager. Now I was an adult, and I’d been on my own, setting my own rules, since I was in college. Suddenly, I was transported back into the world of curfews. 

***

Hey Vahak,

Armenia is good :) unfortunately my Internet doesn’t work at my host family’s house, but that is really the least of the ghettoness that I am living in now, lol.  I am totally slumming it…my apartment has a shower with a gas tank that you need to light with a match in order for it to work, which my host mother does for me every morning. She is really nice, but ALWAYS home, either cooking or cleaning or doing laundry. (I don’t know how she does it) and it’s pretty difficult to communicate in the Eastern dialect, but I am trying. I have a host sister, Takuhi, who is the complete opposite…always out, going to class or working somewhere part-time, or with her “unger” (boyfriend). So it can get pretty lonely when there’s nothing to do and its boiling hot, but I’m starting to meet more people and hanging out with them.

 ***

That night, some of the volunteers and I went to a club in the center of Yerevan. I met up with one of the volunteers in front of the Opera House, a place often populated by kids at all hours of the day, rolling around in scooters, and foreigners meeting up to go to mysterious underground bars which had no name. “Where is the club we’re going to?” I asked Jessica, a volunteer from Brazil, as we walked down Northern Avenue in Yerevan.

“I went once before. It should be on this street. It’s called That Place.”

“What place?” 

“That Place.”  

I expected an Armenian or Russian name, or maybe one resembling an American chain that had been slightly modified, as was done with Victoria Secret—now Victoria’s Secret. 

We were lost, walking up and down Northern Avenue looking for the no name bar, getting stared at, sometimes hit on, sometimes laughed at by locals, which by now, I learned to just accept as a part of my unique experience in Armenia. 

“Oor ah That Place?” I asked some locals walking around. By now, I knew some basics in Eastern Armenian—like changing “eh” (is) to “ah,” the “g” to “k”,  and I was convinced adding an “oum” or “eets” at the end of any word would automatically convert it to Eastern Armenian. 

“Kaleh ays poghots, asdeejaneets var gnah. Go down the stairs. It is next to the parking lot,” he said.

“Chem hasganoum. Parking lotseets kovn ah?” (I don’t understand. It’s next to a parking lot?) I asked him. I’m not sure if it was the words I didn’t understand or the concept of a club being next to the parking lot. “The guy just told me it’s down the stairs in an underground parking lot.” It was like heading down the stairway to hell. Northern Avenue itself was open, breezy, slow, calm, brightly lit, and quiet. It seemed as though the underground scene in Yerevan was the complete opposite—loud, dark, fast and hot, especially with 500 people crammed into a small space. Anything but calm. 

“I guess That Place was too cool to have a name,” I laughed. And apparently, it was where all the cool kids went—the underage Diasporans, the Armenian men hunting for underage Diasporans, the American/European tourists, the volunteers, the Diasporans turned locals, and some Armenian women. The cigarette smoke hit us in the face as we walked in, with the famous song—“We No Speak Americano”– that ironically always seemed to be playing everyplace, from the cars to the cafes and now, ‘That Place.’  We bumped our way to the bar. 

“The owner here is from Lebanon,” Jessica said. “He’s really nice.” Finally, I thought, I can speak Western Armenian. 

I met some of the other volunteers who were from all over the world—Greece, London, Canada, Brazil and, of course, California, which was the little Armenia of the US. A few girls on the dance floor were bumping and grinding with their friends and with guys, their hands in the air, yelling the lyrics of the song. Those must be the Americans, I laughed to myself. It was harder to distinguish the local Armenian men from the Diasporans since they all shared two common traits, dark hair and charm, both of which they’d use to their full advantage. Slicking their hair back, gelling it up, showing it off through their shirts, they smiled often and laughed at everything women said, and then smiled often and laughed at everything other women said. Varouj, one of the volunteers, was one of these men. He oozed masculinity and sweat mixed with cologne. “I want to live in Armenia,” he told me. I’d heard this before and thought about it myself, but his reasons were different. 

“Really?” I asked him. “Just don’t turn into a ‘rabiz’.” Rabiz was a word I learned from my students. Rabiz men, they warned me, were sneaky, greedy and womanizing, usually wearing dressy black pants and pointy black shoes. 

“Are you kidding? That’s the life! Dating multiple girls at the same time. That’s why I want to marry an Armenian woman and live here.” It felt like it was 2003 again and I was at my first Rutgers college party in a pretend frat called Squam. I hated Squam, but That Place was different. It was full of Armenians from everywhere trying to have fun, and that’s what made it feel like my place.  

“So, what’s your host mom like?” Jessica asked me as we sat at the bar. 

“She’s pretty nice, except she freaked out when I told her I was coming home at two AM and won’t give me a key to the apartment.” 

“Oh, you’re with Hasmik, right? I knew the girl who stayed there before you, and she’d complain all the time. She told Hasmik that it was the summertime and she was going to have fun because she worked hard during the day.” 

Done, I thought. That’s what I’ll say. I talked to a few others about their host families and was really surprised when nobody made a complaint. I heard things like, “I love them. My little host brothers and sisters are so cute. My host mom is so nice. The host dad has dinner with us every night and makes me laugh.” How is this possible? They have to be exaggerating when they say they love them, or they must be dancing it up with house keys in their purses and no fear of sleeping outside if they are late for curfew.  

That night I came home around 2:00 am. I quietly knocked on the door, thinking that maybe the quieter my knock was, the less loud Hasmik would be. 

“Ayyy, Nayiri, you are late, I couldn’t sleep,” she said softly and stumbled around in the dark. It looked and sounded like she was sleeping. 

“I’m sorry. I lost track of time.” 

“This can’t become a habit. It would be understandable once a week, but any more than that and I have to talk to Sevan.”  

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, “but I’m only here for six weeks. I’ll be working hard every day and I would like to be able to have some fun, too.” I remembered what Jessica told me to say. “I’m not going to stay out late every night, just two, maybe three times a week.” 

“No,” she insisted, “I can’t stay up so you can phrrah (jump around) on the streets. If you have a problem with it, talk to Sevan and think about staying somewhere else.” Is she really threatening to kick me out over this? I thought, feeling abandoned in a country where I had no other home. 

“Okay.” I tried to stick to her rules, hoping she’d forget about them eventually. 

***

Dear Mom, 

Hope all is well at home. I went out to dinner with Arthur and Yevgineh (my mom’s friends) Tuesday night (I think…my concept of time is a little off, hehe). They were both very insistent I stay with them after hearing about the conditions at my apartment. I was worried about the shower and the heat and not having anyone else in the house aside from Hasmik, but I think this challenging experience will show me the reality of living in Armenia and really being on my own more than it would staying at Arthur’s. Plus I feel like I sound spoiled when I talk about the shower and heat—I mean, can you believe people here live like this every day? I only have to do it for 6 weeks and I think I will grow stronger by the end. I am excited and still nervous about the rest of my time here. I get bored when I’m home and it is hard to communicate with my host mother, but I am reading a lot and enjoying spending time with new friends (and alone). I’m glad I am adapting well for the most part. And yes, I am very excited about the Karapagh trip! I loved it last time I went. I am free after 6:00 pm if you want to call me. 

Love, 

Nayiri 

(P.S. I’ve attached a picture of me teaching today. Sharistan, the Armenian Volunteer Corps director took…I didn’t even know she took the picture until I saw it posted on the AVC website on Facebook!) 

***

One Saturday, I woke up to the sound of giggling in the kitchen next door. It was Hasmik and another woman. It reminded me of Saturday mornings at my childhood home when I’d wake up and hear laughter as I went up the stairs. My mom, grandmother and aunts would be gathered around the living room, drinking Armenian coffee, talking about Armenian affairs and asking me what I’d like for breakfast. Usually it was crepe pancakes with a special syrup mixed with a splash of wine and a slice of Sarkis dede’s cheese. My grandmother would make crepe pancakes while humming Armenian songs in the kitchen as I watched Saturday cartoons with my brother. Sarkis dede was my maternal grandfather, who owned a cheese-making factory. He had died before I was born. I knew him by his cheese and his strong, soldier-like stance in pictures. “I want some pancakes, and Sarkis dede’s cheese!” I’d say. And my mom would usually ask me to speak Armenian, “Pancake yev baneer goozem hajees!” 

“Nayiri jan, paree luys (good morning). What do you want for breakfast?” asked Hasmik. “We have cheese, tomatoes, bread. I just bought these peaches. They’re fresh. Here, sit down. This is Irina. She lives upstairs.”

“Parev, vonts ek?” (Hello, how are you?) I couldn’t shake the resemblance Irina had to my grandmother. It was like seeing a ghost. She had a long nose, light brown hair wrapped in a bun, and green eyes, just like my Nanig. My instinct was to give her a big hug and tell her how much I missed her. 

“Fine, thank you. What is your name?” 

“Nayiri.” This was definitely one of my favorite things about Armenia. I didn’t have to worry about repeating my name because everyone knew how to pronounce it (even though I had learned early on it was commonly given to boys in Armenia). 

“Happy to meet you,” Irina smiled, examining the boxers and tank top that I was wearing. She said something in Russian to Hasmik who also responded in Russian. This was like my family speaking to each other in Arabic when they didn’t want me and my brother to know what they were saying. 

“Irina is Russian, but married to an Armenian.” 

“Oh,” I said, “Russian is like the second language here, competing with English.” I started making a cheese, tomato and olive sandwich from the spread on the kitchen table. 

“Ha, the country is very much Soviet-inspired,” Hasmik said. “I kind of miss the days of Communism. At least everyone was equal then. We had equal pay and equal living conditions. Now everyone is trying to make their own profit and open their own business. It builds competition and creates corruption.” 

“Well, at least people have the freedom of opening up their own business and owning their own home.” The subject then started to change to one topic only—how much money I make. 

“Where are you from?” Irina asked me. 

“America,” I told her. 

“She’s a teacher,” Hasmik said. 

“How much do you make?” Irina continued. 

“Not very much,” I laughed.

“Like 40,000? 50,000? 60,000?” 

“Sure, around that.” 

“What do teachers make in America?” Hasmik asked. I didn’t know what to say to change the subject. 

“It depends on how long they’ve been teaching, and what credentials they have.”

“Do you get a raise every year?” Irina continued. I told her yes, but it’s very little. 

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Finally, a less uncomfortable question. 

“I have a brother. He’s a lawyer. Everyone says I look exactly like him. I don’t know if this is a compliment or if people are trying to say that I look like a man!” 

“What do your mom and dad do?” I told them my mom was a bibliographer at Columbia University in New York and my father was a cardiologist before he died. Do you want to see pictures? I asked them. Yes! Of course! 

“See this is me and my mom.” I showed them a picture of us from a wedding we attended. “My mom is a single mom with two kids, too,” I told Hasmik. “This is me and my brother when we were little.” It was a picture I had scanned, where we were dressed up in traditional Armenian attire, a long blue and white garb for me and a blue vest for my brother, and we both looked like we didn’t want to be in those clothes. We were on our way to the Armenian Genocide Commemoration in New York, I told them. “These are me and my aunts and my uncle.” I showed them a picture of us taken in the living room by the Christmas tree. 

“Oh, you look just like your mom,” Hasmik said. 

I was clicking through the pictures, and Hasmik stopped me when she saw a blonde, blue- eyed man, my ex-boyfriend. “Wow, you know, he looks so American, blonde hair and blue eyes! Is this your type?” 

“Well, I don’t really have a type.” 

“The Armenian men are hairy, ah?” Hasmik laughed.  

“Yes,” I laughed back. “But so are the women! Plus, I like their dark hair and eyes. Oh, here is my grandma! I called her Nanig. You know, Irina, I was going to say you look so much like her!” 

Irina looked at the picture again and smiled. Hasmik then took out some of her old albums and started showing me pictures of her family and herself when she was younger. I always thought she was probably really pretty, and the picture confirmed it. She was standing in front of a gray building on a cloudy day. She had her arms around her two daughters, with a slight grin, long black hair, and a strong stance similar to my grandfather’s. “My oldest was taking the picture. See, look at my Takush there, look how little and cute she was!” Then, she showed me pictures of her grandkids; one of those photos was professionally taken, one with all of them with cigars in their mouths. She told me that her daughters sent her money regularly so that she doesn’t work. Her husband left her for another woman and moved to Ukraine, leaving her nothing but their old apartment and haunted memories of her crazy mother-in-law and his abuse. 

“The men are crazy here in Armenia,” she said. 

Unfortunately, I heard stories about them before. I remembered reading a story from one of my former students in Armenia whose husband forbid her to go to school or have a job. He made sure that her life would be completely dependent on him until she felt so trapped that, one day, she escaped and became a working, independent woman. I wondered if any of my students came from homes like this. When I first met them, they were so quiet and timid.  During the first class, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. They were all there for one purpose, to improve their English skills so that they could transfer to a college outside of Armenia. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Naturally I wanted them to have a better life, but I wanted them to create one in Armenia. I wondered if I was actually helping my country or really helping Armenia’s brightest, most promising students leave the country.  We went around the room and every student said what they wanted to major in. 

“I go to Yerevan State University and I’m majoring in mathematics.” 

“I go to Yerevan State University and I’m majoring in mathematics.” 

“I go to high school and I want to major in mathematics.” 

Almost every student said math. This was shocking, not only because I was an English major and teacher and the thought of majoring in math was foreign to me, but also because it was hard to believe that every one of these students actually liked math enough to make a career out of it. I finally decided on a theme for the class after meeting them—individuality. 

 

***

Hey Vahak, 

I started my first day of work at the university last Thursday and my students are awesome…so smart, dedicated and well behaved (the dash on this computer doesn’t work lol). I gave them an assessment to test their level of English speaking and writing skills and I have to say (and kinda sad to say) that they are far better at it than my students at home. I have a lot of work to do in terms of planning for my classes, going to my other internship, and I’m also planning a week long workshop with another teacher on different teaching methodologies and examples of lessons. All in all, it’s been an exciting challenge to adapt to everything here, but I like it so far. How’s everything back home? I heard about some cafes with free WIFI so I’ll check those out once I find out where they’re located. Talk to you soon :)

 ***

We started reading Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”—a story about a little Chinese girl from an immigrant family whose mother was insistent on her daughter becoming a prodigy, specifically a pianist. The daughter eventually ended up standing up to her mother, saying that she doesn’t like piano and can’t become a prodigy. This was a story I could also relate to—the conflict of wanting to please your parents and follow your own path at the same time. I can’t say that all the students stood up at the last class and exclaimed, “I found myself!” or  “I no longer love math!” But one of my students, Harout, wrote this on his evaluation: “I like this class. My English improved. I like very much “I am what I am” lesson. I understand important things about America, about American family. It will be useful when I will come USA. A few years ago I don’t like English, now I like it very much.”

***

Vahak jan,

I had my second day of teaching today and somehow my students doubled in number…so now I have like 25 and need to split up the class into two. I made them sound much more literate than they are though (I’ve realized that today), so my work will be more difficult. A lesson I would give my students back home is pretty hard for them to get through and takes them much longer. I need to lower the level and amount of work I give a bit…that, or they need to learn really fast. The last few days have been stressful since I need to cram a whole unit’s worth of lessons into 13 periods (really, really hard). It sucks in terms of resources– I’ve been running around trying to find internet, printers and a copy machine– and it can get pretty costly printing out stories and hand-outs even for one day. AUA (where I taught a few years ago) was so awesome in that respect– I had free WIFI, a printer, and a friendly guy to make however many copies I wanted. There are 4 computers at my job– 3 of which are new and usually used by 2 other Hayastantsi volunteers and a guy hard of hearing (and I already felt bad enough using his computer for half an hour). So I don’t know what I’m supposed to do for internet, considering they take up the computers during my teaching hours. Even if I find a laptop European adapter (whatever it’s called) we don’t have wireless at work so I could only use Microsoft word (but at least it’s something). If it keeps going like this, I think I might have to stop caring as much and just lower the standards for myself and my students (which is so difficult for me to do). My other job at the orphanage-type place is cool and more laid back…I was hanging out with these two teenage girls yesterday and reading this book about a girl named Rosa and her poor Mexican immigrant family (the book selection in their library is pretty bad).
P.S. Yerevan’s bugs love me. I think I might have bed bugs. I’m itching like crazy. How’s the job search going?

***

“Vayyy, shok ah cheh?” Shok. It was the first time I’d heard this word, but over the next few weeks, I’d hear this phrase not only from Hasmik’s mouth, but almost everyone’s in Armenia. And it was “shok” indeed, very “hot.” Very few places had air conditioning, including my apartment.  I was instructed to not leave the fan on in my room at night to conserve electricity. Waking up sweating became routine after awhile. Waking up with bug bites, on the other hand, had become very uncomfortable. What I didn’t realize was the conversation with Hasmik about my bites would be even more uncomfortable. 

“Hasmik, I have these bites all over my body and I’m wondering if they came from the apartment.” 

“What? The apartment?” It was clear I offended her without intending to. 

“Well, I keep waking up with them, and someone told me it could be bed bugs, so I wanted to ask you.”

“Bed bugs! I keep this apartment very clean!” she continued. “How can you accuse me of something like that?” 

“I’m not accusing you. I just don’t know where they are coming from and I want them to go away.” 

“Maybe you are bringing them from America. Or maybe the bugs are coming in through the balcony doors because of all the Diet Coke you leave lying around the room. She started picking up the bottles of Coke as if she wanted to throw them at me. “See? Here, look at this. Half drunken Diet Coke. And look at this. A bag of cranberries. The bugs are attracted to the sugar. I didn’t want to tell you anything, but now that you are saying I have bugs, maybe I should.” 

She stormed out of the room and I was left in complete shock, not knowing what words I said that could have warranted this type of response. I could hear her rambling on underneath her breath in the kitchen. 

“I have to leave the apartment. Let’s go out,” I texted my friend. “Hasmik is scaring me.” I said bye to Hasmik as I left, but she didn’t respond. This silent treatment continued on for the next day. I talked to Sevan about it the next day, and he made me realize that accusing her of having bed bugs was more a sign of disrespect in Armenia than it would probably be in America. He told me to just apologize and try to live by her rules. 

“She’s saying that you are coming home late every night,” he told me. 

“What?” I was shocked. “Why would she say something like that? It definitely hasn’t been every night. I have to wake up for work every morning. Why would I do that?” 

“Well, I don’t know.”

“I don’t know where the bug bites are coming from. I leave the door open at night because she won’t let me keep the fan on,” I said, still feeling angry, but also that I had betrayed Hasmik somehow. 

“I’ll talk to her about the fan. You just work on getting on her good side.” 

I thought I was, but I guess it was more complicated than I thought. After Sevan talked to her, she let me keep the fan on and the bites stopped. I bought her some groceries and chocolate to apologize for any misunderstanding, but she said respect and understanding would be much nicer than candy. 

***

Dear Nay, 

There was this guy on the train, speaking an English dialect I don’t understand, who I think was performing some sort of voodoo curse on everyone. This lasted for over 120 streets of subway travel.  It got pretty annoying.

Vahak,

Hah! Maybe it was an alien language that only he understood. I miss the crazies in New York. If you’re home, go on FB chat! 

Nayiri 

***

“I like you, Nayiri,” Hasmik said, after putting the candy in the cabinet, “but I don’t want you to tell me I have bugs in my own home.” 

“I understand, Hasmik jan,” I said, “I didn’t mean anything by it and I think you misunderstood. I like you, too, and I hope I can still stay here.” 

“Of course you can!” she smiled. “Let’s go have some dinner!” She made me some soup with large chunks of meat with the fat still on them. I ate most of it despite my initial hesitation, as she asked me how my work was going. “You are lesson planning all the time!” she said. “You must be working hard with those students.” 

And it was true. Considering there was no TV and no internet, I would often spend my nights planning lessons or grading in my room, while Hasmik would come in to dry clothes outside on the balcony or to ask me if I needed anything. “I love them,” I said. “I’m so surprised by their desire to learn. They do their homework. They come prepared every day. They ask questions and participate. I can’t believe some of them are only 16 and 17; they seem so wise beyond their years.” Hasmik smiled. “I might quit my job in New York and work here full time!” And I actually meant it. 

“Oh, why not? A lot of people are doing it now. Everyone here wants to get out, and all of you want to come in!” she laughed.  

***

“You know, she died on that bed,” Hasmik pointed down the hall to my room. It was another Sunday morning and it was the second time Irina was over.  We were gathered around the kitchen table drinking Armenian coffee and gossiping about other Armenians. I was already beginning to feel more Armenian. 

“What! Really?” I laughed. At the same time, I couldn’t help being a little freaked out. My hard mattress, with a yellow and green-checkered print that I thought had been part of a sofa for this long, was actually haunted by an old Armenian woman. 

“Ha (yes), oh, was she a handful! Irina knows. She was very sick, but she was very rude to me and would drive me crazy. Every minute, she would ring the bell I had given her in case she needed anything.  But she would ring it all the time! Ding ding ding! Most of the time, she would ring the bell just to wake me up. I’d go to her room, and she would say, ‘I just wanted to talk.’” 

Irina and I looked at each other and smiled. 

“See that balcony? She sat and flashed all of Vernissage once! I said, vayy, she is starting to lose her mind!” 

“You’re kidding!” I said. 

“Then, one day, in the middle of the night, I went to her room. I said, she hasn’t rung her bell in a while, let me see how she is doing. She wasn’t moving. She wasn’t breathing. My husband was away. I didn’t know what to do, so I called Irina.” 

“And I told her, let’s just leave the body here till the morning,” Irina continued, “So her body was lying there all night.” Wow, chills. I felt like I was holding a secret that only a few people knew about. From that day on, I always felt a little strange sleeping on that bed.   

***

What up Nay, 

Learning their dialect is like learning a new language, but you know a few of the words. I would be ripping the little hair I have remaining out!  Boiling water tanker…That must be fun… Do you take quick showers? Or take long ones and piss them off?

I’m guessing “unger” is friend?

That’s awesome, it sounds like you’re living it up… Well not yet, you’re probably just building up contacts still. By next week you will have many “ungers”, and you’re going to have crazy Armenian men proposing to you.

You always hear about Armenians being dedicated to school. According to random statistics I’ve read Armenia has a 99.4% literacy rate: One of the highest in the world.  

Sorry Nay, I am not surprised that they speak better than people from the Bronx. And I don’t think it’s sad. It shows what kind of people us Hyes are.

I’m happy you’re enjoying it.

Back home it’s been hot and humid. We’ve been hitting 95+ for over a week now.  And there were some crazy thunderstorms out now. Luckily we have AC :)  Aside from that, trying to live it up, but getting beat up at work like every day.  

Here’s a quick story for you: I’m in a really important meeting on Friday.  My friend at work knew this. So to try to mess with me, he sent me a text message of a naked woman on my phone.  Bastard caught me by surprise. I couldn’t help myself but laugh in the middle of the meeting.

Vahak 

***

Vahak, 

Yup, the dialect is like another language! My host mother, Hasmik, is pretty funny, though—she was telling me how the men here are such scumbag players, having five girlfriends and/or cheating on their wives. She has this drama with this guy who lives upstairs (and if I understood her correctly…he’s 25 and she’s 55) who wants her and waits for her outside, but the girls he’s with apparently fight with each other for him and she doesn’t want to deal with that. She was talking smack about him pretty loud and said he can hear everything, but she doesn’t care. I told her to let me know what he looks like and I’ll punch him in the face for her. I don’t think she understood me. Her husband forced her out of work at a young age and then left her with 3 kids as he went off to Ukraine. Apparently such is life with some Hayastantsi men though. 

That’s funny about the naked woman in the picture. Oh and boohoo about the heat there…you have AC! Well, I’m going out to dinner with a girl Gaya from Seattle (Seattle–weird huh?) tonight (last night was spent doing nothing but reading/planning so I’m forcing myself to go out on the town). I posted pics on FB…did you see them? 

Nayiri

 ***

Some mornings, Hasmik would wake me up for work. Other mornings, she would wake me up with a shot of tutti oghi (mulberry vodka) that had a following in Armenia even higher than its eighty-percent alcohol content. I heard a tap on my door three times. It was the tutti oghi doing it. “Wake up! Tutti oghi!” Hasmik exclaimed.  

“I can’t. I have work,” I said. 

“Oh come on, one shot.” 

“Okay.” I took two. 

“Sovads es?” Hasmik then asked me. After “shok ah, che?”, “sovads es?” was the second most commonly uttered question in Armenia, and it meant “are you hungry?” More specifically, it meant are you starving

“You know, I’ve noticed people always use that word instead of hungry. Is there a reason? We usually say ‘anotee’ (hungry),” my curiosity finally prompted me to ask her. 

“That’s because everyone is always starving. See, that word is somehow symbolic. People don’t think in average amounts. They don’t want some money, they want a lot of money. They don’t want a nice car, they want the best car. They don’t want an average apartment, they want a mansion. You are either very poor or very rich, very thin or very fat, very educated or a villager, very hungry or very full. And people are not just hungry, they are always sovadz. Starving for something more, and nobody is ever satisfied.” I wished I could offer a solution, but I didn’t know what else to do other than work.  

“I’ll help you.” I started doing the dishes, by now remembering which sponge and water temperature is used for the coffee cups, and which one for the other dishes. Hasmik was scrubbing down the walls with water and soap, as she wiped the heat off her face. 

***

What’s poppin Vaks? 

So I’m in an Internet cafe right now (using Russian gmail by the way) and it’s really dark with music blasting in here. A lot of them are like this. I feel like I should be holding a cocktail. 

My showers are nice and quick…no time to stand around since I have to manually hold my showerhead. One of the perks of living in the projects. What what!

Yes, unger is friend except they use it for boyfriend here. My host sister’s unger’s name is Hayk and he’s this big conceited guy who is always touching her (at least the one time I met him). They have definitely stepped up their PDA here the last couple of years!

***

During one of my last few days in Armenia, I bought a gray jumper with orange, white and green beads on the top.  It was too long on me and Hasmik volunteered to hem it. I was getting ready to go out my second to last night in Armenia. Hasmik was asking me where I was going and with whom from the kitchen next door, and I was yelling back that I was going to a goodbye party for some of the volunteers, naming the ones I had talked to her about. She didn’t ask me when I was coming home. She hadn’t asked me that dreaded question for quite some time, and when she did, I told her the truth and she told me to have fun, even if it was sometimes followed by an occasional laugh and “Vayy that’s late.” Once, she even opened the door for me and laughingly asked if I was drunk. “A little,” I laughed back and went to sleep. 

“Here you go.” She handed me the jumper and I took it like it was one of the most valuable gifts I’d received in a long time. I was finishing doing my hair with the blow dryer that Hasmik loved so much. “This is great, a straightener attached to the blow-dryer, what an interesting concept!”

“I’ll leave it here for you,” I said. One of Hasmik’s favorite things to do was her hair. She’d have a stylist come in once a week to straighten her hair. That hair stylist also did mine one time.

After I was done getting ready, she looked at me and said, “You look beautiful. And you know, you’ve lost weight!” 

***

Hi Mom,

How are you? It’s unfortunate that I am always sleeping when you call! So I was talking to Sharistan about how short my trip felt and I wish it was longer, and she suggested I extend it, so I think I want to extend it by 2 weeks (until late August/early September– I start work September 7). I was told that all I need to do is call the airline and it shouldn’t be a problem. I’d do it here but I think it is easier from the States. I don’t want to leave! If you can’t do it, please let me know and I will try calling from here. Things with Hasmik are much better since I talked to you– she is being extra nice and friendly, and even letting me keep my fan on, so that is why I decided to stay. Hope all is well with you and let me know what happens with the flight extension as soon as possible.

***

The night of the party, I took a cab to the Birthright Armenia office. At this point, I knew that there weren’t many cabs on my street, but walking down a couple of blocks to the main strip, there would be a whole bunch of them flying by and people fighting over them, kind of like the Broadway of New York. Varouj was hosting the party. He opened the door and gave me a big hug. He was fortunate enough to have his own apartment, and that night, it had turned into That Place—dark and smoky. But this time around, people had gotten to know each other very well, maybe a little too well. You knew who kissed who, who hated who, and who the clicks were. 

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“Nayiri jan,” Anto and Karnig came up to me. “We haven’t seen you since the trip to Lake Sevan! How have you been?” Anto and Karnig were two local guys that were friends with Varouj. A few of us decided to boycott the Birthright excursion one Saturday and take our own to Lake Sevan. We bought our own baneer hats (bread with cheese), khorovadz (barbeque), and Kotayk beer, the best kind in Armenia. The three of us, plus Stacey and Artem, interns from Toronto and Lebanon, were smashed in the backseat, with two local guys we just me driving in the front. They were blasting some Armenian hip-hop music. 

“What is this?” I asked, being really drawn to it. It was a combination of hip-hop, rhythm and blues and Armenian music. 

“Super Sako,” Anto said. 

“Sako? You mean he’s Armenian! I totally thought he was black. I love it!”

We spent the rest of the trip blasting Super Sako with Anto and Karnig giving us information on the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the land of Karabakh.“Why is everyone trying to take our land? First the Turks, now the Azeris,” I said. 

Stacey asked them about the Genocide, the topic that has been ingrained in every Armenian’s brain since childhood—never forget April 24, 1915, the 1.5 million who died; fight for recognition; you are a survivor, you come from survivors; you must love and preserve your country, your language, your culture.  

After a few hours and some history lessons, we finally made it to Lake Sevan. Anto and Karnig desperately searched for a place to be away from others. “There are too many people here,” they said, even when there was just a small family a few feet away.  Finally, we found a remote enough location. Anto drove into the woods to the beach, eventually making his way onto the sand. Naturally, we got stuck. How many Armenians does it take to move a car out of the sand? Apparently, more than ten. Being unsuccessful in doing so, we decided to eat our khorovadz (BBQ) and drink Kotayk instead. 

Locals pushing car out of sand at Lake Sevan

“This Kotayk is so warm,” Stacey said. 

“I have a great idea,” Karnig said. “Let’s attach it to the tree in the water. The water will keep it cool.” Karnig and Anto were so friendly and non-stereotypical, like my students. 

I was able to talk to them normally, not like the guys I’d have to fight off on the streets or those I had to argue with about women’s equality. “Yes, women are just as smart.” 

“No they aren’t,” one guy told me at a party. “Can they solve an equation as fast? Try solving three times 314?” It was some ridiculous number like that. 

“That’s absurd,” another male volunteer told him. 

“That doesn’t prove anyone’s intelligence,” I continued. “Women are far advanced. They have decent jobs and careers. Many of them are leaders and professionals; some make even more money than men. How would you like it if someone called your mother or your sister stupid?” We all concluded that it was pointless to argue our point any further and gave up on this topic.  

At this point, with enough Kotayk in our system, nobody was concerned about the car stuck in the sand, or that we might have to spend the rest of the night in the woods being eaten by little Armenian crickets. I went in the water, along with Anto and Karnig. I wanted to see if it felt any different. It was pretty cold, but my body felt connected to the water somehow, and I couldn’t get enough of diving my head in and out of it. It was getting cold. We were running out of food. Karnig had buried Anto’s body in the sand, and we all stood around him to take a picture. So, what is left to do when Armenians are out of food and drinks? Dance. Anto blasted Armenian music in the car, and we all gathered around in a circle and danced. It felt like I was part of some tribal cult partaking in a dance ritual in the middle of the woods. It was someone’s idea to put cardboard under the car tires, and we slowly made our way out of the sand. 

“I know,” I told Anto at the party, “that was such a fun day.” 

“We No Speak Americano” played one last time. We all still spoke in Americano with each other, except for the non-Armenian speakers who tried speaking Armenian since it was a requirement to learn basic conversational skills before leaving. 

***

I didn’t extend my stay. A couple of days later, I left Armenia to go back to New York. Hasmik woke up at five AM to help me get ready and say goodbye. “You know, I am going to miss you,” she stopped me and touched my arm as I was walking around the apartment and packing up. “I got used to you, you crazy girl.”

“Me too,” I smiled, feeling more sad that I was leaving and less happy to be going back home since now, my home had changed and expanded. “Please come visit me in New York, and when I come back to Armenia, I’ll come to see you.” 

I sipped on the coffee Hasmik made me and reorganized my suitcase, as a combination of Super Sako, Rihanna and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing in the background. I tried not to think about how difficult it would be for us to keep in touch considering Hasmik didn’t have an email address. 

When I was on the phone with my mom, I asked if she wanted to talk to Hasmik. I am not sure what my mom was saying on the other end, but I heard Hasmik. “You raised a wonderful daughter. She is smart, respectful and caring, and we loved having her here.” I didn’t have to wonder if Hasmik meant what she said anymore. I knew her by now, like a daughter starts to know what her mom is thinking. 

My last day, I forgot the rent money I was supposed to give Hasmik. Being part of Birthright Armenia, the program paid for some of it, but since I had planned to stay for only six weeks instead of eight, I had to pay the rest. “I’ll quickly stop by an ATM and come back here before going to the airport.” 

“Problem chi.” (no problem) Hasmik didn’t accept some of the money I owed her. Six weeks ago, I wouldn’t have understood why. For some time I thought she might have been doing this for the money, considering that she held paintings for people to sell at Vernissage for a certain price. She also got paid to host volunteers year round. But I understood it now— she may have been quirky, a woman who talks to herself in the kitchen and speaks a million words per minute, but she had become like my own mom who would probably give back the money herself. 

When I came home, I missed her, the one egg she would boil for me every morning (even though she would always want to give me more), the conversations we would have at the kitchen table, and even the stupid fights we would get into occasionally. A few weeks later, I received an email from another volunteer, Diana, which read something like this: 

“I’ve been told you had Hasmik as a host mom. I have her now and she’s driving me crazy. She won’t let me stay out late and she’s always either crying or talking to herself. What should I do?” 

My response went a little something like this: “Give it some time and just hang out with her.” 

Diana ended up switching homes. I had hoped Diana would stay, but I understood why she left. I knew Hasmik probably felt offended, but I didn’t worry much about her. I knew that wherever she was and whatever she was doing, even if it was hot and she was lonely, she was probably laughing.

Just recently, I was washing some of my clothes at my mom’s and asked her to hem one of my pants. As she was looking through my clothes, she found my gray jumper. “This stitch-work is so bad. Who did this? Do you want me to redo and hem this, too?” 

“Why? What’s wrong with it?” 

“It’s all uneven and sewn in a zigzag way from the inside. It just looks strange.” 

“Ohhh, Hasmik did that for me,” I remembered and smiled. 

“I’ll take it apart and sew it again.” 

“No, Mom, leave it. I like it the way it is.”

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Nayiri Panossian

Nayiri Panossian is an Armenian-American teacher living in New Jersey. She graduated from Rutgers University with a major in English and minor in Psychology. She then earned her MA in English Education from New York University. Nayiri is an active member of the Armenian community, teaching Armenian in churches in her community. Although she remains loyal to her roots within the Diaspora, she is also consistent in her efforts to help and strengthen ties with her homeland. She has volunteered in Armenia —with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Intern Program teaching Creative Writing at the American University of Armenia, and with Birthright Armenia and the Armenian Volunteer Corps. Nayiri is currently a high school English teacher in the Bronx. She lives with her son in New Jersey.

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