My First Impressions of Armenia

I was only five years old by the first time I set foot in Armenia in the year 2000. I hadn’t been back since. I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel the need to. The memories soon faded away, and by the time I finished my first year at university I could only remember one church, the view of Lake Sevan and shining a laser at the local boys who were playing football. However, while being part of the Homenetmen scouts, I wanted to get involved in the trip to Armenia; such a trip would give me the opportunity to visit the sites, feel the culture and meet fellow Armenians.  And so, after 14 years, I was to return to the ‘Hayrenik’. I took this journey to be my ‘first’ time in Armenia.

I still remember the breath-taking feeling while on the descending plane: I was in Armenian airspace, I was in the ‘Hayrenik’, I was to land in the country that I had learnt so much about, presented so much about, talked so much about.

However, I was also very nervous.

The month before I had journeyed to Izmir, Turkey, with my mum and sister for a short holiday. Exploring the city, the ruins, and the local villages, hearing the language and music that I had heard from childhood, eating the foods that I had had my whole life, I felt welcomed, I felt… at home? Despite not being Armenian, the Turks and Kurds I encountered could have been like my distant relatives, displaying cultural actions and sayings I was so used to seeing and hearing from my very own grandparents.

Would I feel the same in Armenia? My supposed home, ‘Hayrenik’, ‘my’ country?

The answer: on the whole, a big yes, but naturally, also a little bit of no.

Coming from a very western upbringing, I was not used to the local cultural norms; Russian words peppered everywhere, and the coldness of the people. Even more so, the effects of decades of Soviet control could still be felt, its legacy living on through the seemingly depressed buildings of Yerevan. I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a developed country. It is one still struggling with corruption, difficult neighbours, and almost a third of the populace below the poverty line. I also felt a little absence of genuine Armenian food – perhaps a poor choice on the part of me and my friends where, a lot of the time, I would eat foods such as Pizza Hut, KFC or a shawarma from the local takeaway – not really the Armenian experience I was expecting.

However, these disappointments were nothing compared to the encouraging joy and genuine happiness I felt. For example, before my visit, I was most excited about seeing Ararat, and upon first sight, I was not disappointed; with its humongous scale, while being in the middle of a vast flat land, and its permanently snow-capped peaks. It was truly captivating.
Yerevan city centre’s bustling vibe also surprised me. Even late into the early mornings, ‘Opera’ would be busy with families. Weekends provided the opportunity for free concerts, including playing Armenian music out-loud for people to dance to. Such was the ‘Hangist’ feeling of Yerevan city centre.

Also, my complaint about Armenians being rather rude by western standards only felt like it applied in Yerevan. I visited Gyumri with my friend and his family and was instantly greeted with a different feeling; the buildings and even the linguistic dialectical difference felt to me like a hint of what I had felt in Turkey, that ‘western’ Armenian experience. Gyumri left a welcoming picture in my mind.

All the while, I had been happy to be in Armenia, but there were some occasions which really made me smile and ultimately feel that I was ‘home’: Firstly, throughout my stay, I was speaking and hearing mostly Eastern Armenian from the natives. However, a few instances of Western Armenian caught my ear and made me feel more comfortable. As much as I believe Armenian is one language and the dialects are just added flavours, growing up more so with hearing western Armenian, I felt a childhood safety feeling whilst hearing it spoken randomly around Yerevan.

Furthermore, I was taken to a restaurant by a friend of mine where I ordered ‘lahmacun’ and a portion of ‘icil koefte’, a dish I remember eating many times during my childhood visits to my great grandparents. I wouldn’t have thought food could carry such emotions and memories. This was topped by buying a portion of fresh apricots from the local Armenian apricot seller walking from restaurant to restaurant. I couldn’t have felt more at home, even if buying fruit from a wandering fruit seller was a little odd by western standards.

But that is the problem. Taking Armenia’s issues with a European approach would show limited development, and so must be taken with a pinch of salt. My trip to Armenia must not be seen in comparison of western standards but on its own as a journey for myself to feel connected to the land of my ancient ancestors. And that it did.

 — Raphael Gregorian

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