First Impressions Part IV

Visiting the Children’s Orphanage in Stepanakert

Orphanages and centers for the arts abound in Armenia. Passing down the traditions of the Armenian people and learning them is of utmost importance. As I watched gifts being distributed to the children, I was struck by one little girl who got a jump rope that was too long for her. She had no complaint and would not even allow the gift to be returned for something else. She just jumped higher to accommodate the length of the rope.

And I think, time and time again, I saw my family do the same.  For things that were not outwardly changeable, things were changed from our side of the fence rather than expecting others or situations to change. And then to see the joy in it made it even more beautiful.

Even though the country looks harsh and hostile, my eyes betray me when I see people talking to one another, walking arm in arm and smiling at one another. Laughter. How are they so hopeful?  So indomitable in spirit? What is stronger? The feeling of survival or fear? Or maybe they feel neither. My mind is swirling with thoughts.


At a famous gorge, we were told about a battle that was fought and how the caverns were scaled by Armenian fighters. In that starkness, there were fields of flowers I had never seen that had a prickly beauty. Once again, I ponder the juxtaposition of the geography and marvel at it all.

After exhausting but fulfilling travels, I connect with the Musical Armenia Project crew. A lavish dinner, pomegranate wine, food that is so flavorful I’ll be tainted forever remembering its qualities and, of course,  dancing. Our first lecture about Armenian folk music brings this quote from the teacher: “Folk songs fly with wings. They are like birds. They are free. They fly and nest freely, and they are remembered.” Music to my ears.

Svetlana and I at the recital

Finally, the purpose of my travels becomes incarnate as I meet my piano teacher Svetlana Navassardian. My Armenian is very rusty and hers is from a different part of the country than the Armenian I’ve learned. Nevertheless, after realizing that it was going to be a wild ride, I rolled up my sleeves and entered into a learning process that was the opposite of what I’ve ever learned in the past 50 years of playing the piano. Scary, frustrating, but so alive and infinite in feel. THIS is what I was looking for all along but didn’t even know it!

With hours long lessons, I had my work cut out for me. In the heat of July, everything seemed to move so slowly as far as progress. With no air conditioning, I found myself pacing the floor at the Tchaikovsky Music School more than one time a day. And in between the mornings, I found myself marveling.

Marveling at the pace of life in the outlying cities compared to Yerevan. In Gyumri, between the food and the architecture and the people, I felt I could have moved there and lived quite comfortably. I especially loved the desserts at Ponchik Monchik, a splendid fish dinner at Cherkezi Dzor and the coffee shop that employed older children with special needs who would work side by side with their mother and earn a living wage. What’s not to love? These are my people.

Gyumri’s Fish Restaurant (Cherkezi Dzor)
Ruth Hartunian-Alumbaugh
Ruth Hartunian-Alumbaugh is a Board Certified, Registered Music Therapist who calls faith, food and family her holy trinity. She lives in Connecticut and writes a food blog (Ravings and Cravings) for her local newspaper, The Chronicle.
Ruth Hartunian-Alumbaugh

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