One month left!

The weeks are adding up – and dwindling down- at this point, and I find it impossibly hard to believe that I’ve really been here for 12 weeks, or that I leave exactly a month from today. Three months have flown by in this crazy mix of emotion, laughter, frustration, discouragement, helplessness, inspiration, and probably most of all, happiness. I was saying to my friend here the other day how cool it is to feel like someday I’ll look back at this time and think of it as the best days of my life, of the adventures I’ve had, friends I’ve made, lessons I’ve learned. It’s also really incredible to watch other people get to grow and transform as well, and I always try to let my closest friends here know the ways I’ve seen them grow. I don’t imagine I’ll really be able to appreciate all the ways I’ve changed until I’m home, but I have been trying to find little things to take note of. For example, I’ve learned so much about my history and developed new work skills and have pushed myself to be more outgoing and flexible. I’ve gotten better at not needing a fixed schedule, as well as having plans shift once they’d been determined. I can’t put into words how I feel different knowing I’m part of a global community that’s linked by language and culture means to me, but it’s something really amazing that I appreciate being able to carry with me moving forward.

the most beautiful morning at Sevan

the most beautiful morning at Sevan

As for what I’ve been up to? It seems each week is getting more and more packed and I can hardly keep up trying to document it all! We went to Lake Sevan a week ago, which was a lot of fun and a refreshing trip to a body of water. The weather wasn’t fabulous, but we had tons of fun anyway, and Sevanavank was breathtaking. My event at work was a few weeks ago, and that was a special experience as well. We’ve had to say a few goodbyes to friends lately, and it’s starting to feel real how soon we’ll be leaving and scattering around the globe again. Last Wednesday was one girl’s birthday, and she invited us to her dad’s winery for a special tour and wine tasting. This last weekend was spent mostly at the pool, as it felt the most apt way to celebrate the 4th of July. It’s nice being tan, and I always love swimming. I was so exhausted by the end of the weekend that I slept for a full 12 hours last night!

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Wine and cheese night with friends at Cascade. We love doing little hang outs like this and inviting our friend to come play guitar!

Wine and cheese night with friends at Cascade. We love doing little hang outs like this and inviting our friend to come play guitar!

This week we’re going on a trip to a carpet factory for one of our havaks. It’ll be really fascinating to learn about how the rugs are made and to see the process as it happens. Wednesday night my host family is planning a nice kef for my sister, and then Thursday our friends who were in another region for the past 5 weeks will be back in Yerevan. Since I first got here, I’ve been talking about getting an Armenian version of The Little Prince, and now that I can finally read Armenian, it’s time to start translating it for myself as a way to learn more vocabulary and practice reading/writing!

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Mountains and Monasteries

Another week, another monastery. Such is life in Armenia, but fortunately, I haven’t tired of them. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here for over 10 weeks – and that I’ve neglected the blog for a month! The time has just flown by, but it’s starting to feel like I’ve been here for too long, and I’m getting a bit restless to head home. At least home is coming to me in two weeks in the form of my sister’s visit!

Last weekend, we went to Geghard and Garni. Geghard means “spear,” a title the monastery earned because it housed the spear used to pierce Jesus’ lungs after he had died on the cross, which was allegedly brought to Armenia by one of the apostles. It’s not longer at the monastery, but the name stuck. I found this monastery one of the most enchanting places we’ve been so far. The sun came into the first chamber like a spotlight, and it was breathtaking to see next to all the prayer candles.

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The church itself was also partially built out of a cave/into the mountainside, so there were boulders everywhere. Mom- you would have loved it!! The carvings in the stones/bricks were all beautiful, especially the one arch that was decorated with variations on the Armenian tree of life symbol. In front of the monastery complex were many vendors selling dried fruits and sweet sujuk, and one man who was crafting beautiful flower crowns. We obviously couldn’t resist buying them and letting out our inner flower children.

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Next, we went to Garni, which is the only remaining pagan temple in Armenia. Per usual, it was in the most gorgeous location (no pun intended) along the Azat river gorge, surrounded by mountains and greenery. We learned some about pagan rituals, and got to go into a former bath house and learned about the advances in engineering that they had way back then. It’s amazing to think that in the first  century AD Armenians had figured out how to run pipes under floors and use steam to heat the tile – but that’s exactly what the bath house had!

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After having a traditional Armenian meal at a local house-turned-restaurant, we went back to Yerevan and headed to the soccer game against Portugal. Even though Armenia lost, it was amazing getting to be there for a championship game, and pretty cool that we got to watch Ronaldo play as well.

I feel as if I’ve learnt so much here, and look forward to continuing to improve my Armenian skills. It’s funny talking to people from home because I always want to insert the Armenian phrases that have become so common in my daily life, even among my English speaking friends, and then it dawns on me that they won’t understand. I hope that I can try teaching some words/phrases to the people I’m around back home though, because I’d love to be able to share my culture and this piece of my identity with them. Hopefully I’ll even learn the alphabet as well, so I’ll be able to read (and write?), which would be incredibly useful in navigating the city.

This weekend we have no excursion, only a community service project this morning. I’m looking forward to having a laid back weekend – or at least hoping to. It seems that no matter how much I try to have a relaxing day or just stay in, there’s always so much going on that it’s impossible not to wind up busy. But for now, hangstanum, I’m resting. Maybe I’ll even manage to finish a book this weekend!

Azat Artsakh Voghjunum e Dzez

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks and I feel like I’m almost never at my computer, let alone sitting down to write on this blog. I’ve written so much in my journal though, so at least when I look back on this time in the future I’ll be able to remember all that I’ve seen and felt while here, even if words so often feel inadequate to truly capture this experience. Bear with me – this post is gonna be a long one!

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Last Friday we met at the office at 7:30 to head off to Artsakh by way of Tatev. We had breakfast on the side of the freeway with a stunning view of Ararat behind us. In typical Armenian fashion, our bus wouldn’t start when we were ready to leave, but eventually managed to get us back on the road again. The drive quickly turned from urban to gorgeous rural scenery and it was so nice to be up in the mountains again! We had a picnic lunch that really upset my stomach, but I was still able to mostly enjoy myself in the afternoon. Tatev is in a really beautiful location in the Halidzor Gorge, and we took the tramway to get there – the longest in the world! 3.5 miles without stopping. The monastery was stunning as well. I love that these monasteries are always in the most breathtaking places. It makes them perfect for thinking about God and appreciating His glory here on earth. We returned across the cable car just in time to watch the sunset and experience magic hour in that beautiful location before heading across the border into Karabakh. The roads were winding and mountainous, and not the safest feeling. I thought the border would be more intense than it was – instead it was just a little building, no wall or anything. I guess Karabakh has great relations with Armenian, so naturally it wasn’t as secure as the border with Azerbaijan. We had dinner at a hotel in Shushi and were joined by some generals who fought in the liberation war. It was such an honor to be able to dance with them and some locals who were there and really feel like we were connecting with our history in a significant way. I have started to really love Armenian music and the traditional dancing. I hope that the longer I’m here, the more lyrics and actual dance steps I can learn, both so that I can participate more now and have more to pass down later to the next generation. The mood at that dinner really set the tone for the weekend though- there’s a powerful energy in Artsakh that’s electric. No matter where you are, you feel it.

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We were fortunate enough to be in Artsakh for the holiday of Victory Day! May 9th was the day Shushi was liberated during the Karabakh War, which is now commemorated yearly with parades and concerts and other festivities. It was awesome to be present for those events – another perfect example of how lucky I am to be here now to be part of so many major events in Armenia during my time here (like everything for the genocide centennial). Because we arrived in Artsakh at night, I wasn’t able to really see anything or get a feel for the land, so Saturday was my first opportunity to appreciate the absolute beauty of the region. It’s colorful and mountainous like Colorado, and the air is just as crisp and pure. After attending a parade in Stepanakert, the capital, we went to have lunch in a village called Azoch. We ate a delicious lunch in a house that was being rebuilt and toasted to life and to peace. After, we went to a winery and were able to sample local Artsakh gini.

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oh- did I mention they loaded us into the back of a massive truck to drive us to the winery? how we all fit is still beyond me

oh- did I mention they loaded us into the back of a massive truck to drive us to the winery? how we all fit is still beyond me

A few years ago, Birthright started a tradition called “wine mob” where they gave groups of us volunteers a bottle of wine and let us loose in Stepanakert with the mission of inviting ourselves into a random house and sharing the bottle with locals. Some of this is to promote the homestay program to new families, but also for our own edification. No one could welcome us or educate us about life in Artsakh like people who live there, especially those who survived the war. I was so surprised how easy it was to be welcomed into a stranger’s home ­and how willing they were to tell us pieces of their story. The head of the household looked to be in her 70s, but turns out she was born only a few years before my own parents. Amazing how stress can age people prematurely.

A few years ago, a group of engineers and architects built this wonderful airport in Stepanakert, but it has never been used due to threats from Azerbaijan to shoot down any plane that uses it. Our director talked about what this means in the life of ordinary people – for example, people whose child would fall sick and need emergency surgery, but who could not get on a medical flight to Yerevan where the hospital is better because they can’t use the air space. Maybe they wouldn’t survive the 7 or 8 hour drive. It struck me that this is what war is, just as much as the soldier to soldier conflict. War is about civilian life being turned upside down, about people dying because they can’t be med-evacuated. War is women looking 20 years older than they are, muddy dirt roads because infrastructure doesn’t exist, and building frames that are overgrown with plants.

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the frankincense was absolutely divine in this church.

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Gandzasar in the mist

Our last activity of the day was heading to Gandzasar monastery to have dinner. We traveled through more winding, perilous seeming roads, but danced in the aisles and sang the whole time. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard – I was crying and my stomach literally ached! The fog rolled in just after we got there, which had an eerily beautiful effect on the setting. As we gathered around the table, our group director talked to us about how meaningful it is in Artsakh to toast to peace because they’ve known the opposite. The people who really value peace are those who’ve been through war. His words deeply resonated with me, mostly because I think all of us have our own internal battles that we have to face, some more than others, and when you come out the other side of a war like that, you too value peace in whatever form you once lacked. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel incredibly grateful for my peace of mind, for example.

Sunday was another foggy day, which we began with a visit to the Ghazachetots Cathedral in Shushi. It was stunning from the outside, with the fog creating a haunting sort of beauty. Following this, we went to the ruins of a former university and then to fallen soldiers museum, where we were able to see the portraits of all those who perished fighting for Karabakh’s liberation, as well as those who remain missing. Multiple times this weekend we were reminded of the special relationship between NKR, Armenia, and the diaspora, and how it is our “duty” to make sure NKR stays free, that Armenians get to keep their land, and that our country thrives. However, I’m reminded of something I read in an article about the triangular relationship between Armenia, the diaspora, and Turkey: “Diasporas can promote dialogue and encourage cooperation. However, when the diaspora holds inflexible perceptions of the conflict, it can constitute a major obstacle to a solution.” After this weekend, I think this just as aptly applies to Armenia, the diaspora, and NKR – and it’s a point I hope to discuss in our group reflection tonight.

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entrance to Ghazachetots

Afterwards, we went to a military base and were able to go through their obstacle course and training area (or at least try to), and then ate lunch in the mess hall. I was surprised at how good the food was actually! Sadly, no pictures allowed of any of the rest of the afternoon, at least not on any public web or social media platform. Perhaps the most memorable experience of the weekend for me was actually going to the front lines and visiting soldiers in their outpost on the border with Azerbaijan. I mean – what a privilege to be able to walk through trenches with soldiers, to get access to a place that’s usually closed to the public? Here again we witnessed the civilian side of war in the form of an abandoned and destroyed town. The hundred thousand Azeris who once lived there were given 24 hours to leave, and then all the buildings were destroyed so there was no chance that they could or would return. It was jarring to see these razed buildings bursting with colorful flowers, in front of lush mountains and a blue sky. How could there be so much beauty in such a sad place?

Borders are such strange things when you think about them – arbitrary lines that we draw, imbued with the idea that land is ours, that it belongs to any one group over any other. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Native America ideology: we belong to the Earth, not vice versa. Since coming here, I’ve consistently been discouraged, frustrated, and/or upset by the hatred that’s so engrained in the hearts of people here, as I just can’t force myself to purposefully hate a whole group of people on the basis of their ethnicity. I’m struck by the hypocrisy in this as well – we hate them for doing exactly as we are. As Armenians, I would hope we could strive to rise above, that we could release the hatred and tribal mentality that killed so many of us a century ago. I can’t buy into the fanatic nationalism I see here, even if I love the national solidarity and sometimes envy those in my group who are so visibly filled with a pride I can only imagine. I feel more joy in my Armenian roots each day, but I hope I never feel the hatred, the stubbornness, the blind belief used as a weapon, the tendency to create an “other” while condemning that very group for “othering” us. I suppose all groups face challenges like this, and as I’m currently more engrossed in my Armenian-ness than ever before, it’s natural that I’d be finding the flaws as much as the strengths and unique attributes.

Driving through that ruined city, I couldn’t help but think that western Armenia must look like that, if not worse. The Azeris have a town with an unchanged name, and fragments of buildings; in western Armenia, the names have been changed, the culture erased, the history all but silenced. It’s the same situation at the end of the day though: the people fled, the buildings were razed, and the possibility of going home again utterly destroyed. It meant a lot to see the aftermath of a warzone like that, because it gave me a bit more real world sympathy for the refugees I’ve work with and those I hope to serve moving forward. I can’t even imagine having 24 hours to leave my entire life behind, or on the flip side, to hate someone or some group so much that I’d do anything possible to keep them away permanently, to the point of destroying every building they ever lived in.

An overgrown building on the street where I was staying. Compared to the ruins by the border, there's a lot of this building still standing.

An overgrown building on the street where I was staying. Compared to the ruins by the border, there’s a lot of this building still standing.

After visiting the iconic Tatik-Papik sculpture, we enjoyed a traditional ‘kef’ at the house of one of the host families, but from what I could tell, each of the families hosting our volunteers contributed to the cooking. The khorovats (barbecue) was the best I’ve ever had in my life, and as the night went on, we began making toasts. The expectation was that everyone in the room would say something, and sure enough, we all did. Some people toasted to their Armenian pride, some to protecting Artsakh, some to the diasporans being able to come together through this program and fill in holes we didn’t even know we had. I spoke about my work with refugees and my hope that as Armenians we could learn from our past to work towards a world where there are no refugees, where we can let go of hatred, where we can see our neighbors as fellow humans and little else. I talked about how I felt driving through the abandoned village and about the clients whose former homes and villages must look so much like that. Everyone spoke in their native language, while other volunteers who spoke those various dialects translated for us. How incredible to be part of Armenians from literally around the world – the US, Canada, England, France, Lebanon, Ukraine, Syria, Germany, Jordan, Russia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay- sharing a meal, an identity, and a connection that’s part of our blood.

a friend captured this great moment over dinner!

a friend captured this great moment over dinner!

Finally it was time to come back to Yerevan on Monday morning. We stopped for lunch in Goris, and were able to witness some incredible clouds as we drove back through the mountains after that. One of my favorite traditions we have on these excursions is singing popular/ traditional/ important Armenian songs that we have a songbook for. It’s always pretty hilarious, as is always the case when 50 people try to sing together in a foreign language. By the end of the trip, we were all pretty much asleep on the bus and ready to be home in our warm beds with good showers – two luxuries we missed over the weekend!

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Paragliding in paradise

Ooops – another week has flown by without a blog post! I guess that’s fairly indicative of how things have been going lately. It feels as if I’ve been here so much longer than three weeks given how much has happened in that time. Between work, class, events with the program, and time with friends, it seems I’m hardly ever home or on my computer – which is a great improvement from the way I typically live! It’s funny thinking how much I’ve done here that I simply wouldn’t have done at home, like impromptu wine nights with friends, and karaoke on Mondays. I unfortunately had my first negative food experience Monday night though, so Tuesday I was pretty much out of commission. My biggest fear coming to Armenia was that I’d be getting sick all the time and not know what was causing it and then be too afraid to eat, but I’m so grateful that couldn’t be further from what’s happened. I’m slowly learning how to order food and make sure it doesn’t have ingredients that will make me sick, and how to explain to servers what I can and can’t have. My host family has been making yummy food, and I’ve found some delicious (and not so delicious) snacks. I’m dying to get back to America and whip up some gluten free lamachun though! I know my grandma left behind a lot of recipes, and it would be neat if I could learn to cook from those now and adapt them to meet my needs. I only wish I’d had her teach me when I was alive.

i dream of lamachun!

i dream of lamachun! but i do love this armenian salad 🙂

With each passing week, I feel myself becoming more attached to this culture and more committed to making it a central aspect of my life moving forward. I want to learn Armenian cooking, learn the songs we sang today on the bus ride home from our excursion, continue to practice speaking. It’s really amazing how much I feel I’ve already learned just being immersed in the language, even if it’s so hard for me to actually speak myself. I love going to language classes, and have entertained myself trying to learn the alphabet. It’s my goal while I’m here to practice Armenian calligraphy, at least as much as learning to draw all the letters in creative ways. On Wednesday, we celebrated the International Day of Dance by attending an event by the opera house and learning some traditional dances. Stumbling over ourselves, trying to move in circles on a slope, we all couldn’t stop laughing. Amazing how getting out of your comfort zone can be so rewarding, and so exhilarating. I’m usually so shy about things like dancing, but since getting here, I feel like I’ve been able to push myself out of my shell more, to seize every opportunity handed to me and try to enjoy it as much as I can. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. Each morning I wake up smiling thinking about the day before and the day ahead. It’s really such a joy to be learning so much about my heritage and how its expressed, how vibrant it can be, while connecting with other Armenians and diasporans.

flowers at Dzidneragapert after the weekend's activities

flowers at Dzidneragapert after the weekend’s activities

a group of us with the petals we were helping to recycle

a group of us with the petals we were helping to recycle

May 1 was Armenian Labor Day, so we had no work. A group of friends and I decided to go paragliding, as we’d discussed the idea and the weather was supposed to be perfect. Talk about breaking routine! We were picked up from Yerevan by the paragliding company in a little white matrushka bus and taken to the hostel where the company is based. From there, we drove up to Hatis Mountain to begin our adventure. When I say we drove up the mountain I mean we literally drove on it – there was no paved road, just some tired tracks and boulders. More boulders than any reasonable person would be comfortable driving over so nonchalantly, but somehow we survived. We knew we were in for a fun day since our drivers spoke only Russian, though our official tour guide spoke Armenian and English. This more or less set the tone for the day: lack of communication, abundance of laughs. We spent hours lounging around around the middle of the mountain, listening to music, watching each other take off, and admiring the other paragliders. By mid-afternoon there were so many chutes up in the air, it was so beautiful! I imagine that’s what Santa Fe or Cappadocia must look like with all the hot air balloons up in the air. Being back in the mountains felt like Colorado, and I found my soul more at rest than it’s been in a long while. Sitting there with good friends and good food and a beautiful view, I couldn’t imagine any better way to spend my time or memory to make.

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and gretchka for Rachel

and gretchka for Rachel

I imagined paragliding would be a lot more similar to parasailing and was surprised by how slow moving and relaxing the ride was. Whereas with parasailing you’re going fast and mostly straight, my paraglide ride was pretty much just a moseying descent to the bottom of the mountain. We weren’t able to catch a thermal to lift us back to our launching place, which ended up being an adventure unto itself. I spent a good hour at the base of the mountain with 3 Ukrainian guides, 3 Armenian EMTs, and a few other local men…and no cell phone to let my friends know where I was and that I was OK. Obviously when I got back up an hour later, there was a lot of explaining to do! After another hour we headed back to the base of the mountain as the last two guys prepared for their ride. Our driver loaded the 7 of us girls into the matrushka and took us to the bottom…and then got picked up. We couldn’t believe he just took off, leaving us with the bus and without an explanation. Oddly, being stranded like this added to the day’s fun and we had quite the dance party! Finally the last two gliders landed in the field behind us, and we commenced dancing in the street with them, some random Russians, and our guides. The ride back to Yerevan stayed just as jubilant, blasting music and singing with our crazy driver. It’s hard to reduce a twelve hour day into a paragraph like this, and I already fear forgetting all these crazy days.

flying!

flying!

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wrapping up the chute after the last rides of the day

After Friday, for perhaps the fifth time since I’ve been here, I felt myself saying over and over “this was one of the best days ever,” and sincerely meaning it. The experiences I’ve had so far have truly been incredible, and I sound like a broken record with these same platitudes, but there aren’t words for days like these. Thanks to Facebook, I learned that May 1 marked a year since my last day of undergrad classes, even though it feels like a lifetime has gone by since then. Turning in my last final, I could never have imagined what I’d be doing now, and I especially couldn’t have imagined how I’d feel. I keep hearing Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” in my head and chuckling because in the last 365 days I have literally gone Rocky Mountain climbing and (essentially) sky diving. I’ve loved deeper, spoke sweeter, and perhaps more than anything, become more focused on living in the purest sense. People say to live like you’re dying all the time, but that isn’t really a way to live. Instead, I hope that I can continue to live in the moment, live for each day and try to savor the little things as much as the big ones. The last few weeks have been defined by laughing so hard my stomach hurts, by sunshine and learning, by gratitude and humility, by pride and connection, and accomplishments that can’t be measured on paper or even with words.

My first weekend here, my host sister made a comment about the girls I was having wine with and how they didn’t seem like people I’d hang out around, how they seemed so different than me. The way this program brings together diverse people into a unique, intense but fun experience is the most wonderful aspect of it for me. When I think about the group of people I spend my time with, I know there’s no way that we would be together in the US, or be able to do as much as we have. Our lives would be unlikely to cross, and maybe if this were high school, we’d all be in pretty different “groups.” None of that matters here though. It’s nothing short of serendipity that we all ended up together, that we could connect over things that matter and let the superficial be insignificant as it should be. I’m grateful to have people who are different but similar to me, who bring out my strengths while also challenging me to grow by pushing my boundaries personally, emotionally, and socially. I really didn’t expect that I’d have as much fun here as I have, and even if it’s sometimes hard feeling like I’m not totally “myself” or doing the things I usually do (like read a book a week), I know that it’s so much more important to say yes to life here, to say yes to friends and events and experiences as much as possible. Books will always be there, but this time is limited, and every second is a gift.

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Marching On

The past few days have been the most incredible, emotionally intense, inspiring, though provoking, humbling, and empowering days of my life. I truly can’t say enough how blessed I feel to be in Armenia right now and able to participate in all of the commemorative events. 



Flowers at the eternal flame on Wednesday morning. When i was back on Friday night, the pile was taller than me!



Thursday night we gathered in Republic Square (or as we say in Armenian, hraparak) to watch the live stream of a historic ceremony at Etchmiadzin, the heart of the Armenian church. For the 100th anniversary of the genocide, the church canonized all the victims. I was so enchanted by the rituals of the ceremony, the incredible light as dusk set in, and then awed by the beautiful paintings unveiled. However, the part that gave me chills was the end, when there was a moment of silence followed by ringing bells, observed simultaneously in churches around the world. They showed St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican absolutely packed, with the pope presiding over the service. We could hear the bells of St Gregory’s in Yerevan as we listened and watched the ringing in Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, New York, LA, Beirut, Toronto, Montreal, Madrid, even at Notre Dame in Paris. Seeing Armenian and non-Armenian churches unite in such a way was so moving and inspiring. We stood in near silence, equal parts grateful to be witnesses and grateful to know that all around the world there were people acting in solidarity with and support for us.

Following the ceremony was the much anticipated System of a Down concert. I don’t listen to them at all, but Armenians love them since they’re all of Armenian origin. Who can pass up a free show though? Especially one this significant, as it was the band’s first time in Armenia and entirely dedicated to getting recognition for the genocide. Somehow my friends and I managed to get very close to the front and had a blast despite the relentless downpour. Never in my life have I enjoyed getting caught in the rain so much! It was incredible to look around and see thousands of people packed into the hraparak like that, especially knowing that almost all of them were Armenian and many had come from around the world from this event. The band even played Sardarabad, an Armenian patriotic song, and everyone went completely wild. Armenia May only be a fraction of the size it once was, but in that crowd, I  felt that is it so much more alive, so much stronger, than ever before. I’ve said it so many times, but I came here wanting to find something in my Armenian-ness that wasn’t rooted in tragedy, and it’s such a blessing to be finding just that more and more each day.



rock on, Armenia



I woke up the next day with a smile on my face just thinking about how much fun I had with friends at this once in a lifetime type of concert. What’s more, it sparked me to really look at how far Armenia has come and what it means to be Armenian. I gained a much deeper understanding of the global network of our people, but also how close knitted the community is despite that. Between the canonization of the martyrs and the concert, there was a feeling that we were right in the center of history, that some day people would look back at this time and we’d be able to say “I was there. I watched and heard the bells ring simultaneously around the world, watched from Yerevan as the catholicos canonized the victims, was in the fifth row in the concert in Republic Square.” Just as I say “look how far we’ve come” now in reference to the genocide, I know that when I talk about this week in the future, when I talk about actually being present here, I know I’ll say the same with equal amounts of pride and awe about what will have happened since this day.



April 24 is the day officially dedicated to genocide remembrance, and this year, the centennial anniversary of the genocide’s start. I watched the ceremonies on TV with my host mom, even if I couldn’t understand any of it. Seeing world leaders present to pay their respects was definitely an awesome feeling. In the evening, we gathered at the office for a discussion led by a visiting genocide scholar before participating in the candlelight march to Dzidnernagapert, the genocide memorial with the eternal flame.

Where and how do I even begin to describe that march? It’s been two days and I still get emotional trying to put words to it. Once we got the the hraparak we all received candles and joined with a crowd bigger than any I’d ever seen in my life, let alone been in. Some people had torches, many had flags, and there was a big truck blasting music. We paraded up Mashtots, the central road I. Yerevan, to get an epic view of the Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia) statue above us. Between chants of “Hayastan!” and “djanachum” (recognize), my mind kept wandering to my grandma and how badly I wish she were alive to have seen this day. She would’ve loved to see the world looking at Armenia, and been thrilled to have a granddaughter back there now. We all had to think back to our ancestors who left a century ago, and how they’d feel to know that we were back in the place they had to leave. How could they have imagined that 100 years later their descendants would be in a free Armenia, marching with Armenians from around the world, demanding respect and recognition? It felt like an unspeakably huge blessing to participate in this event and learn at an emotional level what it means to be Armenian. We had to think of those who were taken from their homes at night on this same date, and how very different our own walk through the darkness was. They walked for weeks without rest or water or, most importantly, choice. We walked to remember and honor them, their journey, their suffering, and their strength.



Climbing up the final hill before the memorial, it struck me how much it means to me to be able to have this memory to tell my kids about some day. I’ll be so proud to tell them that pride and resilience are as much a part of their story as the genocide itself. I’ll be able to tell them that every year, Armenians from around the world join together to parade through the night of April 24, past all the most important landmarks in Yerevan to lay candles and flowers at the eternal flame of Dzidneragapert. That night brought home how unique and special it is to be part of this group, how no other group (in my view) has anything like this. I know no words could do it justice, but the crazy mix of emotions – sadness, wonder, pride, mourning, hope, humility, gratitude – will certainly be something I’ll continuously return to and process. Maybe I won’t ever be able to fully comprehend the significance of this week, or eloquently summarize my experiences, but it gives me so much joy to know that I’ll always be able to look back to April 24, 2015 as one of the most incredible experiences of my life. What an honor and privilege to be able to take part in all these things and to be able to call myself Armenian.



“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” 
 – William Saroyan

100 Ans de Memoire Concert

Last night, I went to the Opera House to watch a live screening of a concert held in Paris by the Armenian World Orchestra in honor of the victims of the genocide. Shown exclusively in Paris and Yerevan, but a message for the world, it included three pieces by Armenian composers, followed by Mozart’s requiem. The music was beautiful, and at times haunting. The third piece performed was a world premiere of a piece by Michel Petrossian, and while it was at times incredibly bizarre, the end had almost the entire audience in tears. It was a very experimental sounding contemporary piece, but at the end, the choir and some of the orchestra members began holding up signs with names of historic Armenian cities on them and ripping them in half. It only took seeing VAN being destroyed in front of me to know what was going on, to feel the symbolism like a punch in the stomach. ZMURNIA, SHUSHI, and ARAPGIR. The audience had been restless during much of the disjointed sounding piece, but went wild with applause after, with cameras flashing as soon as we saw the names of our historic cities.

Armenian geographical places renamed in Turkey

Throughout the concert, my mind kept wandering back to a feeling that’s been fairly common, if not unexpected, since being here. Mostly, I just can’t believe I didn’t know how much this culture has to offer. Symphonies by Khatchaturian and Komitas, music by Charles Aznavour, traditional folk songs, even musical instruments like the duduk, plus this language with its own awesome story… So much that I wish I’d always appreciated and now inspires me to make it a more central part of my life. I envy my friends here their second language, their familiarity with these things that I’m only now discovering or embracing. Armenia is so much more than the genocide – but the genocide took it from me in a way, a loss I’m only beginning to understand.

Unlike many others in my group, my family left Harput (now Elazığ) before the genocide officially began, although I know pogroms had already begun in the area. What followed in the years after has meant that I am left with answerless questions and a permanent state of liminality. Would I have family in Armenia today? Or Turkey? Would that make me Turkish? Or is Armenian-ness deeper than geographic location? What does it mean to be Armenian but from an Armenia that was erased? To be from a place that doesn’t exist any more? There’s a certain aching that comes with that kind of displacement, questions inscribed in the soul of each spyur’kahay (Diasporan Armenian) like me. With so much talk about the genocide, I’ve had to ask myself how it is relevant to me now, a hundred years later, and why its memory is something I need to talk about.

The French Ambassador welcoming us

The French Ambassador welcoming us, and a really lousy picture of the stage

Sitting in the Opera House last night, I felt some answers begin to form in my mind. I don’t know if I had family who was affected by the violence, but I know that I have lost the culture and tradition and memory that is so integral to ethnic identity. The genocide means I’m a third generation refugee – that, in some sense, I can’t go home again. The genocide has overshadowed so much of Armenian history that it’s easy to lose awareness of the cultural achievements for some of us in the diaspora, because these things are talked about so much less frequently. The genocide means we only know our heritage through loss and sorrow – and are bound to that sorrow because it’s still so unresolved. I am so grateful to be American, but sad that I only learned one version of history in school, learned mostly of the accomplishments of one kind of people, that until recently I had a very ethnocentric, Western European world view and understanding of the great milestones in history. Sure I learned about dynasties in China and India, the Aztec and Maya, the Fertile Crescent, and trade throughout Africa, but I didn’t learn about Armenia, how Armenia was the first Christian nation, or how early the alphabet was developed, or that the first wine and shoe were both from here. 

I don’t want to only know the tragedy of my people, and don’t want the world to think only of the poor starving Armenians (or the Kardashians, for that matter). I wish they could see the rich history of achievement and accomplishment as well, or even instead. It’s easy to think only of the darkest times in a people’s history, but it’s an equal tragedy to let that darkness obscure the overwhelming good, or the strength of the people, the resilience and tenacity that characterize this nation. It feels criminal to me to reduce a nation to their darkest hour – to know only the worst – which is really what brought me here in the first place. I feel truly blessed to be here at this important juncture in history to observe the memorial activities, but to simultaneously learn about the other thousands of years of proud Armenian history that I am the seed of. 

performance across the street from my apartment of two Armenian scores for the genocide, plus a display of the original manuscripts

performance across the street from my apartment of two Armenian scores for the genocide, plus a display of the original manuscripts

I love that music goes beyond language, but is instead capable of reaching the heart in such an intimate way, connecting people from all walks of life. I love being in a room where each of us is moved by the same sounds, and though we might internalize and interpret them in different ways, we are all in that moment together, united by it. Much as I feel an outsider in Armenia, through concerts like this, I feel this as my history too, that this tragedy fits somehow into my story, and that all of us of feel the wrong done to our people, but pride in who we are and who we have always been. I can go to historic sites and read texts, but perhaps because I was a musician for so much of my life, the emotional power of it is so much more evocative in me. Discussions are good for thinking and asking questions, but at least for me, music is always better for feeling.

statue in Paris dedicated to the composer Komitas and to all the victims of the Armenian Genocide

statue in Paris dedicated to the composer Komitas and to all the victims of the Armenian Genocide

Week One

Have I really been here for a week? Man – the time is flying! I imagine it’ll only get busier, but I’m slowly getting into my groove, becoming more familiar with the city, and picking up a small smattering of words. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much I love it here. I tried to refrain from setting expectations beforehand, since there was no way I could predict how I’d feel here. One of the biggest surprises has been how easy it has been to connect with the group, and how much I enjoy being around people who share my ethnic background. I never thought it would be something that made me feel immediately comfortable with others, but that has been my reaction so far. There’s a fair number of us in the program, hailing mostly from the US, but also England, France, Russia, Canada, Lebanon, and Argentina. Amazingly, there’s three other people who are gluten free! So they’ve been able to help me know what to have and avoid, share extra food with me, and help me navigate grocery stores. Having friends who are fluent in the language is also hugely helpful for eating out. But so far the food has been excellent, and I haven’t felt sick once. I’ve fallen head over heels in love with halva as well, which is basically sunflower seed butter and sugar in solid, brittle candy like form. Pure magic.

"pomegranate seeds and halva... we're so middle eastern!"

“pomegranate seeds and halva… we’re so middle eastern!”

My first few days here were pretty rainy, but it’s been clear and sunny the last few, which means great views of Mount Ararat. I can clearly see why Armenians put the image on everything, it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s also a difficult reminder of how vast Armenia used to be, as the mountain now lies outside the modern boundaries. What’s even more painful for Armenians is that the border with Turkey is blocked – so Armenians can’t easily access the historic homeland, or this important mountain. There are still plenty of peaks here though, and I’m hopeful to get into them soon enough!

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How beautiful! Yerevan has surprised me continuously with all there is to see and do, especially at this important juncture in history. More on all the genocide events next week, when I’ve had more time to gather thoughts and see it all. The preparations are underway though, and the city feels like it’s bursting with anticipation. One of my favorite places I’ve been so far is the St Gregory the Illuminator church. I’m always partial to cathedrals, but what I loved about this one was that the pews and floor were rather austere, but the chandelier and overall design of the church still drew your eyes upwards. I read once that churches are meant to do this, since that’s where Heaven is, and the whole point is for you to look towards God when you’re there. The way the light broke into the foyer was incredible, and I think I’ll keep going back for that alone. Outside, there’s a separate chapel for lighting prayer candles, which I went to once with a friend and then again by myself, and I’m sure it’ll continue to be a regular place for me to visit while I’m here.

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yesterday's morning prayers

yesterday’s morning prayers

Since I don’t start work until next week really, I wanted to get a decent amount of sightseeing in this week. I’ve been down some famous streets, seen the painter’s garden, and will go to a few more museums today before one of my orientation’s and then listening to a friend’s lecture. The museums have been wonderful in learning about more positive aspects of Armenian history, and cultivating a firmer sense of pride in my heritage. I even saw the world’s oldest shoe yesterday! I loved learning the story of the Armenian alphabet, and seeing inscriptions in that language and Greek. I hope to make a point to learn more about ancient culture and mythology during my time here, as it’s an area I know almost nothing about.

One part of Armenian culture I have explored in depth here has been the wine –gini. We went to a local winery on Saturday as an excursion for the program, and learned about the market opening up and their hopes for the future. The name of the group was called Semina, which I found an interesting nod towards the Diaspora. It seemed odd to use an Italian word for an Armenian brand, but when I thought about it, I realized that both semina and diaspora come from the same Latin word meaning seed or origin. Naming the Armenian company the original seed acknowledges that diaspora – the seeds that were scatted. Cool, right? The woman who was giving our tour told us that right now, the Armenian wine market is largely reds, because those are the grapes that were cultivated during Soviet times. Back then, the Soviets decided that Georgia was supposed to be the wine producing country, which Armenia was supposed to do cognac, and brandy, so now there’s an unequal balance in the types of grapes available here. While the Armenian wine market is small now, many archaeologists believe that the first grape cultivation and wine production took place in Armenia, so there’s a lot of history surrounding these vines and hopefully a market to retail based on that. Naturally, we were able to do a wine tasting as well, followed by a delicious lunch of typical Armenian cuisine.

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wine map, including modern and historic Armenia, and Nagorno-Karabach

Of course, we try to get our share of local wine wherever else we can too. Sunday night two friends and I went to the wine shop where my host sister works, where I befriended the local cat. I couldn’t believe he just hopped up on my lap – or how happy he was there! Unclear who was having a better time really. We also found a cute restaurant on this little pond next to the cathedral, where they had swinging chairs at the tables and a bottle of wine for roughly $4. How can you go wrong?

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Armenian wine, hummos, and pickled vegetables.

Armenian wine, hummos, and pickled vegetables.

In honor of Earth Day, we’re doing some clean up in a nearby gorge tomorrow, and then participating in a tree planting event. It’s supposed to be gorgeous weather, so spending time outside will be wonderful as usual! As much as I’ve been loving it here, it’s sometimes hard being so far away from home time-wise. When I’m up, most of the people I know are asleep, and vice versa. It’s so weird talking to friends when they’re having dinner and I’m getting up for the day! Hopefully once I have a more fixed routine that’ll get easier as well – but for now, the blog and delayed texting it is 🙂