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Tuesday, 9 April 2013


My love affair with Armenia...

It began when I stepped into the old Zvartnotz airport in Yerevan.  My husband and I were traveling with a group from California. For most of us, it was our first visit to Armenia.

After a layover in Paris we were flying an Armenian airline to Yerevan.  The flight attendants, young Armenian women with over-sized figures, wore white outfits with black trims, which added to their size. They all also wore heavy makeup – a hallmark in Yerevan.

The flight was scary.  The airplane seemed in disarray, with loose seats and water dripping from the sides.  However we were impressed that Armenia had an airline. 

The year was 2001. Ten years earlier, in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia had gained its independence.  On one hand, the bruised and battered country was readjusting from separation from the former Soviet Union and trying to find the road to recovery. 

On the other hand, the country was slowly emerging from the dark years of not having electricity and water because of the six-year war (1990-96) with Azerbaijan.  The war had taken thousands of lives and had consumed the energy of the country and it had put Armenia in a distressed situation.

As an Armenian-American, I stand proud to be a citizen of United States, and give thanks for the freedom and the liberties that we can enjoy.  But as an Armenian I have deep emotional ties towards Armenia as my fatherland because when I was growing up in Iran, the love of Armenia was a constant theme at home and school.

 I grew up in Iran with a sense of "Garod", a nostalgic feeling, towards Armenia.   There is no exact translation in English for the word "Garod".  Yearning for  our homeland was due to the reason that Armenia was under the Soviet rule and it was a forbiden destination until in the 1980s when the doors to Soviet Republics were loosened.  At that time we Armenians could visit our homeland, and we could experience what our literature and the verses of our poets had praised about its beauty.  

Everyone in our group including myself was so excited that finally we had arrived in our ancestral homeland, a place that we had heard so much praise about its beauty but had never set foot in.  I was trying to fight back emotions.  

It was late evening when we arrived to Yerevan.  The dimly lit airport looked deserted. Like Soviet-era government buildings in movie scenes – it was cold, unimpressive and outdated. The interior walls with pink and grayish marble looked very tired and gave us an indication of what to expect entering Yerevan.

After a woman officer stamped our passports, my husband asked to take a picture with her.  To my surprise she accepted and got up from her chair came out of the cabin to take a picture.  I still cannot believe that a governmental officer accepted to take a picture together. The snapshot shows my teary-eyes and how I'm holding back emotions.

The young woman was not over-sized as the stewardesses were, but same as the stewardesses she was wearing a lot of makeup and nicely coiffed.  She looked more like the young women we encounter in the streets of Yerevan and marvel at their beauty.  Seeing those beautiful young women in the streets of Yerevan, we realize the reason a famous song had been created many years ago where the crooner praises: "The beauty of a Yerevanian girl" – "Yerevani Siroun Aghjik."

As we were exiting the airport, we had to work our way past a crowd that had come to welcome their relatives.  I haven't forgotten the bouquet of flowers they had brought.  It was the largest bouquet I ever remember seeing.  Maybe it had 30 inches in diameter.  Tearful relatives gripped the arriving passengers with warm emotional embraces.  Armenians have a love affair with flowers, and the design of their flower arrangements are very unique.

We arrived at Hotel Ani, just before midmight. The hotel was totally refurbished and tastefully decorated with Armenian-themed furnishings and interior design.  The spacious lobby and the elongated check-in granite counter put us in awe.  I was not expecting to see a swanky hotel.

After we got situated in our rooms, our tour director told us we could have a sandwich at the café next door. The street was again dimly lit, but it didn't prevent us from noticing the extremely wide sidewalk.  It was another jaw-dropping experience.  I could not believe how wide the sidewalk was.  Besides the "Champs Élysée," boulevard in Paris,  I had not seen anywhere else such wide sidewalks.  

The café was a prototype for today's café-culture of Yerevan.  It had a very primitive disposition: a few round tables with Coca Cola umbrellas, and again dimly lit.  Their selection of food was very limited.  At that late hour all they could offer was hot dog and sodas.

While we were sitting there I noticed a shop next door selling outfits and accessories.  The store was still open. The shop keeper was about to close when a friend stepped inside and they started a conversation. The shopkeeper finished closing the doors, but then they stood in front of the store for about half an hour continuing the conversation.  I thought, "Maybe Yerevan is a city that never sleeps!"  But later I learned that Yerevan is known as the laid-back city – of course no one is laid-back when driving a car

The following morning, our first day in Yerevan started with a visit to the Genocide Museum, and from there to Victory Park to see the statue of Mother Armenia and the military museum.  On the way back from Victory Park, we were ushered to Matenadaran (the manuscript museum). Our last stop was Grand Candy, a kids space, where we had "ponchik" – a doughnut type sweet bread.  The place was packed with parents and their kids nibbling on their ponchiks.  Again that was another aspect that I was not expecting.  I thought  people are so poor that they cannot have those kind of luxuries.

Growing up, I had heard so much anti-Soviet propaganda and how our homeland Armenia had suffered under communism.  But now in Yerevan I was seeing things that were against my expectation.

It seems there was a gap in my education.  I was not aware that under Soviet Union, Yerevan was reconstructed with an urban plan very close to European cities like Paris or Vienna.  It was hard to believe that Yerevan owned all those architectural gems, built during Soviet times.

Visiting all those monuments and traveling through the streets of Yerevan and seeing the multitude of stylish buildings – although in dilapidated condition –made from special pink color Touf stone put me in awe.  the wide sidewalks and public art dotted through out the city was overwhelming.  

The rampant poverty and the crumbling buildings instead of being a detterent contributed to the alchemy of  my relationship with Yerevan.  Armenia got under my skin.  Yes, I was hit by the "love-bug."  I thought we should roll-up our sleeves, and stand shoulder to shoulder to our Armenian brothers, and rebuild the country.

As Frank Sinatra left his heart in San Francisco, I left my heart in Yerevan.  
After two weeks of traveling in Armenia we returned home charmed by what we had experienced in Armenia.  I decided on a whim: "given a choice, Armenia is where I'm going to retire."

So, on my first visit to Armenia as many other diasporants, I fell in love with the country and became an aficionado.  Armenia gave me an itch.  I went back home to Glendale, but my heart stayed in Armenia.  There was a voice calling me back.    During the following years, I visited Armenia for several times, but it was not until last year that I had an extended stay in Armenia.  

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