Category Archives: Armenia

Our Hangout

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It’s a crummy shot but at the top you see the three characters? That’s BAR. Going down the front is BILLIARD.

I loved this place when I was in Peace Corps. Eight of us lived within a two hour walk of Martuni, the central town for all of us. This is where we’d always hang out while waiting for other people to show up. I’m positive we Americans were the only people who ever actually drank booze there, all the Armenians just drank coffee, smoked, and played pool. In two years I never saw anyone other than us with alcohol. Best beer in town, the only place to get it actually on tap. Way better than what you’d get at a restaurant; just a bottle poured into a glass.

Lots of great stories too. Vachik was this big bouncer dude who worked in his late 40s early 50s who just adored us. Called all the guys in our group his sons. He would always tell us about his time in the Soviet Army and him being a wild youth. It was my favorite way to practice my Armenian. A funny thing happened once. A German couchsurfer was staying with me so me and him went out for a couple of beers. Vachik was talking to me and I was translated for the German. He kept saying ‘Germanatsi, germanatsi’ when referring to the German guy. Well, ‘Germanatsi’ is German in Armenian but trying saying it out loud. After Vachik left the guy asked me, ‘Why did he keep calling me a Nazi? I felt very uncomfortable.’ I explained it to him and he laughed it off and ordered another round.

Once I was with some Armenian girls at this weekend camp training I was hosting. I had longish hair and it was near Halloween. I was on a Boondocks kick and decided to get my hair cornrowed and go as Gin Rummy. So the girls did it for me and after the training I went to hang out with Vachik a bit. Fast forward a week. My hair was coming undone and I wanted to do it again. I went to the stylist but couldn’t really explain what I wanted. I went and asked Vachik if he could help since he had seen what I had. Him an I leave the bar and we’re walking down the street and then I just hear him yell ‘Hey! This is my good friend here. He wants his hair done. This is how you’ll do it for him.’ Then I got it all done.

What a dude.

The Armenian Flag

I ran across this in an Armenian friend’s dissertation I am proofreading and felt like it was worth sharing.

The Republic of Armenia law on the flag (2006) specified the meanings for the three colors on the flag.  The red symbolizes an everlasting struggle of the Armenian people for a long life, Christian faith, and an independent and free Armenia.  Blue correlates with the wish of the Armenian people to live under a peaceful blue sky.  And orange celebrates the creative talent and hard working characteristics of Armenians.

The Armenian Flag

However, some school students apparently are taught a different version of the flag: red, blue, and purple.  This stems from the idea that the Armenian word for purple is ‘trisaranagyun’ derived from the words apricot, tsiran and color, gyun.  The apricot is the national fruit of Armenia and one of the defining characteristics of the culture.  So some schools play songs where the flag colors are red, blue, and purple.  The red stands for Armenian blood that was spilled to keep the country safe, blue for the blues skies that look over the Armenian people, and purple for the ears of wheat that feed.

I’m not farmer but I’m not really sure where the purple comes from when dealing with wheat.  I’ve seen pictures and they’re golden.  I’m sure there’s a reason though.

Keeping a Language

A language is a pillar of a nation’s culture. It can provide a link back through history and a view of the future. Protecting a language from dying off like so many others is not a natural act. People need to make a conscious effort to teach their children the language, normally though the schools. No where is this shown better than in Armenia. Throughout elementary school students are taught to respect and love the Armenian language. A pair of poems they learn are translated below.


Keep it
[Armenian language] high and pure as the sacred snow of Ararat is,

Keep it close to your heart as you remember your grandfathers’ memories…

Even if it happens so that you forget your mother,

You should never forget your mother language

 

Our caravan would have lost his way, we would have been lost, if we did not have our language to light for us in the night ways. Thus, let us glorify and burnish as a sword, so that the Armenian language, always bright, could tinkle under the sun

 

A Khatchkar’s Story

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This is the sad story of two young lovers. There once was a young man in the village who was a tailor (represented by the scissors near his head) and caught the attention of the most beautiful girl in the area. When the two decided to wed there was great rejoicing because she was so lovely and he was a well brought up and responsible young man. Although the two families were poor they were able to provide enough for a large wedding party (the food and wine jugs) and invited the whole town. The young couple were standing in front of the priest staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when a force of marauding bandits (man on horse) swept down from the hills and began to slaughter the populace. The couple were violently butchered along with many of the other people, but somehow half of the population was able to survive. The groom’s younger brother vowed revenge, and as he marched to the blacksmith to turn his plowshares to swords, his mother begged him to reconsider. She could not bear the idea of losing her only remaining child. After the rage subsided, the brother understood the wisdom of his mother and apprenticed himself to the town’s stone cutter. After three years of apprenticeship he carved out this scene to remember his brother and would-be sister in law and placed it over the place where the two were killed.

The Story of Mt Ararat

One of my good Armenian friends studies ethnography in university and is working on her doctorate degree. So whenever she has a paper to write I offer to proofread it for her, correcting English mistakes and typos due to her not being a native speaker. I’d do it no matter what she was studying but since it’s such an interesting subject, I’m often lucky enough to hear about stories and tales from Armenian history. In the most recent paper of hers I read she wrote about the national myths that are told to young children in schools and at home.

The story of Ararat.

Mt Ararat is revered in Armenian culture. It stands a symbol of their nation and a protector of the Armenian people. So it’s no surprise that there is a creation myth for it that isn’t ‘plate tectonics.’

Years and years and years ago there was a young man named Ararat. He lived a peaceful life with his village in the Armenian highlands. One day a group of bandit raiders came through and held the village for ransom. Ararat escaped the initial onslaught, mounted a defense, and led the attack to repulse the bandits. He was celebrated as a hero by his friends and family.

Over the years Ararat became more and more famous in the region. He was known as intelligent and fair, as well as an exceptional military commander. His defense against foreign invaders because the stuff of legend. Because of him the Armenian people could live in safety. But time keeps on ticking and eventually Ararat was an old and sick man. So at the age of a hundred he prayed to God.

‘God, I am old and tired. I need rest from this mortal coil. But I can not leave my people. Help me protect them until the end of time.’

God looked down to Ararat and replied. ‘You are only a man, and it is man’s gift and curse to be mortal. I can not make you live forever. What I can do is turn you into a mountain so you can look down upon your people and the Armenian nation can look upon you in wonder and hope.

So Ararat was turned into the mountain. The people were upset they lost their hero and they cried and cried and cried. They cried so much their tears ended up forming the Araks River which makes up the present day border between Armenia and Turkey.

Of course being a legend, there are probably many others describing the formation of Mt Ararat and the Araks River. My friend tells me this particular tale is not very popular, she never heard it until doing her dissertation research.

Fouling the Food

In order to save money while I do much of my eating with food from grocery stores. It’s much cheaper than going out to eat and it’s nice to have so much more variety. Most of the time I have zero problems, but occasionally I make a mistake. So to celebrate I’ve made a list of some of my more memorable mix ups.

I bought the cheaper orangeade instead of orange juice or my sick friend. The worst part was it was my idea to get her OJ while she was in bed.

My friend send me out to buy some butter. I ran down to the local shop and found the butter section. Again to save money I picked the cheapest one up because butter is butter. Except when it’s pure fat to be melted on top of pierogies.

Topping that, a couple of friends of mine went out for ice cream in Armenia.  When you buy ice cream there it often comes in wrapped up blocks.  Well everyone got theirs and were heading out.  This was before we spoke enough Armenian to know what the shopkeepers were saying. One of my friends opens the ice cream and finds out it’s a stick of butter.  In order to save face he took a solid bit out of it as the shopkeeper watched on.  Like it was what he wanted the whole time.

I went out shopping while my friend was at work. I visited the butcher and got some chicken and as I was paying I noticed a pile of ribs for dirt cheap.  Like less than a dollar a kilo cheap. I’m a sucker for ribs. So I picked up about a kilogram and made them to go with the chicken. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but I figured that’s why they were so cheap. I served the food and my friend’s roommate informed me the meat was so cheap because it was meant to be served to pets, not people. Still tasted good.

At the shop there was a can of beer I hadn’t tried before. I picked it up and popped it open when I got back. Turns out it was an awful, awful ginger flavored beer. To top it off there wasn’t even any alcohol in it.

Another time I mixed up some lemonade tasting beer with real beer. It also was disgusting. But at least it can get you drunk.

I wanted to buy some mustard so I ran to the local store. They didn’t have any regular condiments. So I had to settle for this garlic sauce that was like three times more expensive than ketchup or mustard would have been. That was a downer.

I once mistook mustard for toothpaste. Did you know you can buy mustard in squeeze tubes in Germany? Real cheap too.

But my absolute favorite happened in Warsaw. I went to a meat shop to buy some chicken. I pointed it out in my non-existent Polish and had it wrapped up at the counter. I paid for it, picked it up, and left. A few hours later when it was time to prepare dinner, I unwrapped it and I was shocked and amazed to see a pile of sliced ham. I guess I just picked up some other person’s package. I still wonder if they noticed it before they tried to prepare their lunch or dinner.

Nor Tari

For many places around the world New Year’s is outshined by Christmas.  Thankfully not so in Armenia. New Year (Nor Tari) is far and away more popular and central to the Armenian culture.

Local kids selling shots of vodka to those that pass by.

Local kids selling shots of vodka to those that pass by.

Nor Tari isn’t much like Western New Years Eve; there’s a lot of drinking, eating and socializing. Actually that is pretty similar to NYE around the world but Nor Tari cranks it up to 11 by lasting more than one night. Normally it starts on December 31 watching the ball drop on TV like everyone else in the world and continues until the Epiphany on January 6.  That’s a solid week of celebration.  And it’s not like Carnival in Brazil.  The biting cold winter of the Caucasus mountains means everyone is staying inside to eat and drink.

Even without the holiday it’s still a great idea.  The winters in Armenia suck hard.  Most houses are stone houses with crummy insulation.  Only one room is heated.  Going to the outhouse often means battling ferocious winds, ice slicks and snow drifts.  I once did laundry and my fingers almost froze solid hanging my things out to dry.  My pants actually did freeze solid.  So with all the cold misery winter brings why not have the biggest party of the year then?  Make winter something to look forward to instead of dreading.

Three generations of host family.  Grandmother, aunt (far left), mother (far right), and sister.

Three generations of host family. Grandmother, aunt (far left), mother (far right), and sister.

The center of Nor Tari are friends and family. Just like Christmas in other countries, this is the big time for far flung family members to return home for a few days as well as visit everyone in the surrounding villages. And since hospitality is genetically wired into Armenian culture, friends and family means food. Sometimes people will coordinate and have large dinners at a single house. Sometimes people go off by their lonesome. Men visit their neighbors for some vodka. Women visit their friends for wine or coffee and cake. What ends up happening is that for a week there’s a constant stream of people going to and fro. And they’re all inviting each other to come along. I haven’t tested this theory yet, but a known serial killer would be invited inside for dinner during Nor Tari. It’s just that open.

Handmade Armenian cakes.

Handmade Armenian cakes.

The men drinking their vodka.

The men drinking their vodka.

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As the biggest celebration of the year, most Armenian families save up just to throw a lavish spread. Some of the more consumptive families take out loans to throw a part big enough to impress their friends. But that happens more in the city than in the villages. In the villages people throw parties, but it’s expected that you’ll be expecting so many visitors over the days that throwing one huge party is a waste.

As an American I was lucky enough to experience Nor Tari twice. Both years I was invited to dozens of homes and drank dozens of shots and ate dozens of pounds of food. A normal day would involve waking up, eating some left overs that an Armenian mother forced me to take from dinner last night, take a shower, and then visit three or four houses of people I knew. It was far and away the best time in Armenia. Being a foreigner I was treated like a rock star. I may have visited four houses a day, but in each of those houses I was the only foreign guest they’d ever had. Pushy with getting me to eat on a normal day, the Armenian women would have pried open my mouth with a crowbar and just shoveled food in if I tried to refuse. And the men would bring the cognac to go with the meal and keep me hungry. After eating, drinking, talking, dancing (depending on how much drinking happened) I would beg to be excused and make my way to another house to do it all over again.  To be honest, after experience Nor Tari I don’t really enjoy other celebrations.  They’re just not as awesome.

World famous cognac.

Pro-tip:  If you’re ever asked to make a toast to Armenians, make one out to all the women who worked to provide all the excellent food.  They really appreciate it and their efforts are often taken for granted in Armenian society.

Russia’s Adoption of Christianity

One day I was drinking with my landlord in Armenia. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. A geologist by trade, he was educated in Moscow during the Soviet times and owned one of the first computers in all of Armenia. It was a real pain in the ass he told me. If anything went wrong he’d have to learn how to fix it, this was decades before the Geek Squad. Today he’s an unemployed handyman. Some countries like Poland have done well after the collapse of the USSR. Some countries like Armenia haven’t done as well. But that’s not the point of this story. I just wanted to say how awesome my landlord was.

So we’re drinking together after replacing my shower and he starts telling me a story. He knows I like history, especially really weird stories. He asked me if I knew why Russia was a Christian nation. I told him the truth, I had absolutely no idea. Armenians are proud of their country being the first to adapt Christianity, but a story about Russia’s Christianity didn’t come along every day.

Just so be clear, when he related the story to me he was a little hazy on the details. It’s one of those stories where the names and exactness aren’t really called for. I looked it up later to see if it was actually true. There are chroniclers of the period claiming this is true, and others presenting the conversion much different ways. It’s still interesting.

Back in the tenth century Prince Vladimir was the ruler of Kievan Rus, the land that would eventually become Mother Russia. At this time paganism was still very popular throughout Kievan Rus, even Vladimir was a practice pagan. A legend goes that Vladimir used to practice human sacrifice before his battles and one time a young man was drawn to be killed. The young man’s father stood up to the prince and basically said that all the pagan gods were a crock and the only true god is the Christian god. This stuck with Vladimir and a couple years later he invited envoys representing Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to present their case as to why he (and by extension his people) should follow a particular faith.

He heard all the arguments then retired to his chambers to contemplate his decision. After a few hours of meditation he emerged to the audience hall to read his verdict. Judaism was no good he said. The fact that the Jewish people lost Jerusalem was proof enough to Vladimir that God had abandoned them. That wouldn’t cut it for his people. So the choice came down to Christianity and Islam. Both made very persuasive arguments and each faith had some very powerful tenets. However he could only choose one. And he chose Christianity. Prince Vladimir claimed that alcohol was very important to his people and he would not deny them that simple pleasure. The Islam’s prohibition on alcohol was the only reason that Christianity eventually became the religion of the largest country on Earth.

If you believe the stories.

A Czar-y Story

I was supposed to be flying today but because of Hurricane Sandy my flight was canceled. To be productive and make the most out of this new time I have I wanted to write something. While trying to wrack my brain for something interesting I recalled one of my favorite stories I’ve ever been told while traveling. And to make it even better I can make a really bad pun in honor of Halloween (czar-y almost looks like scary!) and I am a fan of horrible puns.

One interesting thing about Armenia and other countries that have a strong Russian influence is the non-verbal way to ask for some alcohol. Often when with a couple of Armenian men one will eventually look towards you since you’re the foreigner and tap his neck right under the jaw with the back of his pointer and middle finger while looking a bit quizzically. This means ‘You want some vodka?’ After seeing this habit for months I finally asked an older Armenian gentleman I was drinking with why they did it and he told me this awesome story. I doubt it’s true but I love it.

Back in the Russian Czarist era, one of the Czars was visiting his people in Siberia. While him and the royal family were skating on a frozen lake the ice broke and his son fell into the icy water. As the frigid arms of hypothermia and drowning were about to embrace the boy, a local peasant dove into the water and fished him out. The Czar was so amazed by this man’s courage that he was speechless the entire way back to the man’s hut where everyone warmed near the fire.

‘You my loyal subject have proved to me that I am the leader of the greatest people in the world. A man of your bravery is a credit to your family and village.’ The Czar gripped the peasant’s hand, ‘You have saved one of the most precious things in my life. What can I ever do to repay you? Your word is my command. Would you like money? Land? Women? How can I make you happy?’

Now this peasant was a man like everyone else and tempted by this grand offer. But he was not hasty. A thoughtful man, he asked the Czar for a moment to think. Two minutes of quiet contemplation later the peasant had his response.

‘My liege. I dove into the water not for personal gain. A father should never outlive his son and I would have done the same for the highest of kings and the lowest of lepers. As to your offer I must respectfully decline. Every man could use more money, but if you were to provide me with a large treasure my children would grow up to be lazy, relatives would always be asking for help, and my neighbors would resent me. I already have a nice plot of land taken care of by my family, if it was much bigger it would be necessary for me to hire laborers which cause more problems then they solve. And my wife may not be the fair maiden she was when I met, her lithe form is long gone; but she has always been faithful to me and provided me four wonderful children. I would be a stupid man to ruin thirty years of marriage to the woman I love for the pleasures of the flesh. And what sort of young lady would like to be with an old man like myself? My stamina is not what it’s used to be.’

‘However,’ the man continued, ‘there is something I would like if it please you. I’m a simple man and after a hard day working in my fields I often enjoy visiting an inn with my friends for a beer or a bit of vodka. My business often takes me to other towns and I enjoy meeting new people over a few drinks. If you could make it so I do not have to pay for drinks any more I would be very happy.’

The czar was very impressed with the man’s lack of greed. ‘If everyone in my lands half as good as you my friend we would be the greatest nation in history. I will honor our agreement and will tell my mayors and governors to inform all public houses must provide you with free drinks for the rest of your life. A discrete sign will do. As you order your drink simply tap your neck with the back of your first two fingers. This will show the taverns that you are the man that has saved my son and has my blessing to drink without paying.’

So that’s the story. I really enjoy telling it at parties because everyone likes a little cultural folklore. Now go and spread it and impress your friends.

Khatchkars

I wanted to put up some more photos of khatchkars in my last post, but WordPress doesn’t allow someone to post pictures then a slide show with a whole new set of pictures in the same post.  So you get to enjoy them here instead.

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