Tag Archives: people

The Old Man and the Kite

Kites are cool. Flipping and flying and floating in the wind, it’s pretty hard to not like a kite. Most people are happy with the simple and cheap kites that you can find anywhere, but some people want something more. Like a random old man I saw at the park one day. Somewhere in his life he decided that building kites was going to be his hobby and he took it up with a passion. This one kite of his was made out of recycled materials and looked like a ‘fracking Gyrados’ in the words of one of my friends.

 

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Eating Out

I’ve been busy getting used to China after moving here that I haven’t had time to actually write anything. I’m trying to get back into the habit so I don’t forget what I did as I figured things out. So here goes.

 

It was the boss’s birthday recently so he treated everyone to a day off to celebrate. Most of the day was spent at the local park where we played a bunch of team building games my friends and I developed for our Green Camps in Armenia. It was fun but nothing out of the ordinary.

 

Dinner was a little different. We all went to a sit down Chinese chain restaurant. Think something like a TGI Fridays or Ruby Tuesday’s in China and you get the picture. Eating out in China is a bit different than eating out in America or Europe. The first difference was that the table was round. That’s nothing too out of the ordinary, but not very common. Another difference comes in how the food is served. Everyone orders from a menu like always, but when they bring the food out it doesn’t go to the person who ordered it. The food is for the table.

 

What ends up happening is the table is stacked with dozens of dishes. Each dish has about enough food for one person to eat completely and be pretty satisfied. But the dishes aren’t for anyone in particular, it’s community fare. It’s a little different, but no different than many family style restaurants where the food arrives and people serve themselves.

 

The big difference is how you eat the food. There’s no filling up of plates and settling in. You could do that, you do get an empty plate, but it’s not what you’re supposed to do. Instead of piling your plate high with food, you reach across with your chopsticks and grab a bite of whatever you think looks good. Every bite you take you’re reaching across the table trying to get something. When eight people are around a table and you have eight arms and eight pairs of chopsticks pecking at the food, it gets a bit fun and chaotic.

 

I think there are a couple of real advantages to this style of eating. First, it’s really social. There’s no way for you not to interact with the others around the table. It’s all too common in American restaurants to have a good conversation interrupted by the arrival of the food. All of the sudden everyone is more interested in what instead of who is in front of them. The social benefits get even more interesting. The way you address the food is so different. It’s ‘Try the chicken,’ not ‘Try my chicken.’ There seem to be fewer barriers when eating communal food instead of individual portions.

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The other great benefit is less metaphysical and more immediate. It can help you lose weight. Overeating is common because many people eat too fast. What happens is they put food into themselves so quickly their stomach doesn’t have time to register it’s already full. When you have to make a small effort and spend a few extra seconds in between every single bite, the time spent actually eating during a meal drops. Your stomach has more time to process the food and by the time your stomach feels full you’ve probably eaten less than you would have at an American restaurant.

 

Eating this way isn’t just when you go out to eat. I’ve visited a Chinese friend’s home for dinner a few times and it’s exactly the same with less food. I think it’s the best way to eat a meal with others. Except for burgers and sandwiches. Those would get difficult to share.

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.

Exact Change

This is my first post from the WordPress mobile app, so I will make it short to see if its tolerable.

There was a time in Tarija, Bolivia when I was out with another Peace Corps volunteer. Since it was hit we wanted some ice cream; ice cream all over the country was amazing.

We get our cones and for the pair of us it came our to 10.5 bolivianos. I decided to pay since I had exact change. Normally not having exact change doesn’t bother me but at this time Bolivia was experiencing a metal shortage, so coins were good to keep. So paid with a tenner note and a fifty centavos piece.

The lady behind the counter asked me for change. It threw me off for a moment, I paid exactly what it cost. Then I put it all together. Exact chance wasn’t good enough. Well she wasn’t going to get any of my coins just because I was a gringo. I shot down her pleas and she gave me the stink eye. So my friend and I left and because of the evacuation we never got a chance to go back.

Well that wasn’t to terrible but it wasn’t fun either. I have stupid fingers so its hard for me to type on a touchscreen quickly. And the autocorrect can be kind of funky sometime. Trying to place a cursor somewhere specific had always been one of my major battles with my iPhone. I think I’ll just stick with a mouse and keyboard.

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.

Rural Cepelinai

While I was visiting my friend Toma in Klaipeda, she made plans for us to go see her family out in the country. She wanted to introduce me to her parents and siblings and show me where she grew up. Never one to turn a chance like this down I immediately agreed.

Her mother and father met us at the train station in the afternoon. During the ride Toma was excited to inform me that her mother had ordered cepelinai for dinner. There’s a restaurant in her village that’s famous for it’s cepelinai, she told me. They’re delicious, huge, and cheap.

Her parents met us at the train station to give us a ride back to their house. I was getting pretty amped for lunch. We stopped at the house just long enough to drop our bags off then set out to the restaurant to bring the food back.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

It was finally time to eat, Toma’s mother had set the table and served out everything. It was heavenly. A cepelinai is basically nothing more than a huge egg made of meat and potatoes. Hidden inside is a delicious core of ground meat seasoned just perfectly surrounded by a shell of mashed potatoes. I’ve eaten a lot of food while traveling and cepelinai is one of the best I’ve ever tried.

I enjoy cooking so I asked Toma’s mother if she knew how to make the cepelinai. Toma translated for us because her mother didn’t speak English and I can speak Martian better than Lithuanian. Of course she knew how to make them. All Lithuanian women do. Cepelinai are a special dish, very time consuming and difficult to make so they only come out for special occasions. Like visiting Americans I guess. She described the process to me and I thought that was the end of that.

We spent most of the next day working in their fields harvesting potatoes for the winter. It was a bit chilly out but the work kept us warm. The mother left a bit early and when the rest of us returned to the house she called me over. I walked into the kitchen and it was ready for some serious use. There were pots and pans and ingredients strewn all over the place. With a whole bunch of hand gestures and three or four words of English she indicated her and I were going to make cepelinai.

The process was very time consuming. Together we made enough to feed six people and it took close to four hours. It’s surprisingly easy to get past a language barrier with someone as talkative and outgoing as my friend’s mother. We held a number of good conversations ranging from my family back home to where me and Toma met to their family history complete with photo albums and other trinkets.

To make cepelinai you need potatoes. Boil, chop, then mash them up like you’d do for regular mash potatoes. After that you want to take around three quarters of the mashed potatoes and squeeze the liquid out with a cheese cloth. Pour off the excess water and the white liquid you collect is potato starch you need to save. This step takes the longest, it helps to have an extra set of hands. Put a little of the starch to the side. Mix all the potatoes in with the starch. Now it’s time to start making the cepelinai. Take a bit of the potatoes and flatten it in your hand. Then add a bit of the ground meat mixture you made ahead of time. Since this is such a long process many people make the meat earlier in the day, maybe the night before. You add the meat in the middle of the flatten potatoes then wrap the sides around to make a football shape. Or zeppelin shape, where the name comes from. Dip your finger in the starch set aside, brush the whole thing to help it stick together. Boil them in a large pot of water, it might help to add more starch here to prevent them from galling apart. When they float they’re ready to eat.

Cepelinai are often served with a white gravy. Just chop up some onions and bacon and fry them up. Add sour cream (this is heavy peasant food) to the pan with some black pepper and allow it to heat up.

Dinner with the family.

Dinner with the family.

I Never Felt Unsafe

But maybe that’s because I’m dumb and I just have an underdeveloped sense of self preservation.  This is the third piece about the Peace Corps and Bolivia relationship that fell apart.  Read parts one here and two here.

The first sign that Bolivia was going to be an interesting country to live in came two weeks after we landed in the country and were doing our Peace Corps training. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez came out and claimed that American Peace Corps Volunteers were actually spies sent by the CIA. This wasn’t some paranoid fantasy, there was a bit of truth to it. What happened was that a Fullbright scholar reported for a briefing at the US embassy in La Paz. There an embassy worker told the Fullbrighter to report any Venezuelan or Cuban aid workers in Bolivia. Venezuela is working to improve their standing in South America by sending aid with their oil money and Cuba has a long tradition of sending doctors to areas in the region. The Fullbright scholar was understandably upset and he went to Bolivian authorities. They did some digging and found this same embassy worker gave a group of Peace Corps Volunteers the same assignment. This was immediately overruled by Peace Corps bosses. As a federal agency PC is notoriously independent and makes it a point to be apolitical.

During a tour of our training city of Cochabamba we were shown where the local DEA mission was. We were only shown that so we as volunteers could be told that any interaction with the DEA people or operations could result in our immediate separation from the program. Again, trying to stay apolitical.

There was a running joke among Peace Corps Bolivia, you weren’t a real volunteer until you got robbed. I was on a minibus leaving the city getting back to my house a bit outside of town. A woman and child were running to catch up so I hollered at the driver to stop. The bus was already overcrowded when they hopped on, everyone pressing against each other. About five minutes later the woman and boy jumped off. I got pick-pocketed. No good deed goes unpunished.

There was a time for about a week or so that the local police in the city of Tarija where I was eventually stationed went on strike. Why? The story was that some local Tarija cops were about to dig up some corruption on some federal police officers. The federales and were not happy with that, so they executed the local police. Their fellow cops went on strike after the corrupt cops walked free.

Bloqueos were a daily occurrence. Whenever Bolivians are upset about something they’ll grab a bunch of rocks and just set them across the road. Since there normally is only one road connecting cities, this is pretty effective. Then the people will just sit in the road; eating, chanting, and drinking. Minibuses and taxis just drive up to the bloqueo and we would get out, walk across the lines, and get into another car. The protesters never bothered anyway, sometimes I would be invited to join them to hear their complaints.

There was a protest in Tarija once. Well there were many protest in Tarija, this is just one that sticks in my mind.  People were upset that Hugo Chavez was going to visit the area. They were part of the Media Luna and the anti-government factions. We were stuck in our hotel unable to leave because the protest focused on the single federal building in the city which happened to be right across the street. The protesters kept lighting bits of cardboard on fire and throwing them through the windows they had broken.  We stood on the roof watching the drama unfold until people started throwing rocks at us calling us Venezuelan spies.

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Crummy picture of part of the gathering by our hotel.

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Equally crummy picture of the burning tire left behind as the protest moved on.

One female Peace Corps Volunteer would get raped a year in Bolivia. That was a fact of life and one of the first things we were told. It’s a credit to all the females that served not allowing the fear of assault scare them away.

A volunteer by the name of Walter Poirier is known in the Peace Corps world as to be the only volunteer to have gone completely missing. One story is that he was taking his bike home one night in the rain and the road through the mountains was washed away. Another is that he was murdered. His body was never discovered.

A couple of volunteers have suffered violent deaths in Bolivia. One woman was murdered, one died in a motor accident, and one in a plane crash. Again it’s a credit to all the volunteers after hearing about these possibilities that no one gave up. We knew the risks.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

Add to this illnesses and hospital visits and Bolivia seems like a pretty rough place. Malaria was a pretty common problem.  The cholorquine medication they gave us to prevent the disease worked, but many volunteers (myself included) didn’t take it.  The nightmares that were a common side effect simply were not worth the prevention.  I watched I am Legend one night after taking my weekly dosage and laid terrified in my bed for hours until the sun rose.

But Bolivia wasn’t bad. I’m not alone when I say I never really felt unsafe or victimize. Almost all the volunteers thought the same way. I haven’t heard a single person regret their work there, even the ones that were victims of assaults and violent crime. Many of them refused to leave.  Other volunteers in the South America region called us crazy for dealing with Bolivia. Maybe we were.

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.

Armenian Hospitality

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was lucky enough to spend two years living and working in the small Caucasus state of Armenia. I’m not going to extol the glories and the utter hardships of Peace Corps, that can be a topic for another piece (PC is not all ‘fortune and glory’ by a long shot). No today I’m going to talk about what makes Armenia great and why it ought to be a place you visit.

As a tiny landlocked nation in the Caucasus Mountains Armenia is off the radar of most tourists. There isn’t much of an infrastructure for travelers outside of the capital, but that just adds to the charm. Seventy years of Soviet rule then one of the bloodiest post-Soviet clashes didn’t do it any favors either. But through all this Armenia has so much to offer to the adventuresome traveler. It’s a land of beautiful mountains, rugged terrain through the entire eastern part of the nation. Roads wind through the passes and peaks like a schizophrenic river. Or a snake, but that’s pretty cliched. As the first country to adopt Christianity back in the third century, the landscape is dotted with ancient churches. One of the most wonderful things about the churches is that they were often used as fortresses as well and as such were built on tops of mountains. So it’s an adventure just to get to them. Even in this day and age there are many churches five, six, seven hundred years old that you need to hike a bit to get up to. If there’s one downside to Armenia it’s not very handicap accessible just yet.

However all this pales in comparison to the Armenian people. I’ve had the fortune to travel a decent amount and while I’ve been treated pretty well wherever I was, Armenians take hospitality to a whole new level. It is absurd how many times I was invited by random people to their house for coffee or vodka. It got to the point where if I knew about a couple of Armenians opening a bottle of vodka, I would get personally offended they didn’t invite me to join. I know that my Armenian language skills played a big part in this, they loved seeing an American able to hold a conversation; but all my foreign friends in the country who didn’t speak Armenian and the travelers I met always raved how nice they were treated. I can tell you Armenians are welcoming people until I turn blue in the face, but I think it’ll be more interesting for both of us if I recall a story that just proves this point.

One day I visited a friend of mine in a nearby town and I was hitchhiking back to my village (sorry PC Armenia staff, but Goal Three). A man in his mid-fifties named Armen stopped after he saw me waving my finger; a bit like you’re hailing a cab with your index finger horizontal and wagging it downwards. I used to use the old thumb deal which worked for me until I was told by an Armenian that I should do it the other way since that’s how locals hitch rides. So I hop into the ubiquitous Soviet Era white Lada and we’re on our way. We exchanged a few pleasantries and he was a little surprised that I spoke Armenian. Less surprised than I would be if he spoke English. We went through the standard rundown every Armenian has ever asked me during a first meeting. ‘What’s your name? How old are you? Are you married? Where are you from? Why are you here?’ Without fail those five questions will get asked and answered in the first five minutes of conversation when meeting an Armenian. I don’t recall a single time I met someone and was not quizzed on my relationship status. After that we chatted about just normal stuff, weather and other small talk. We’re approaching a town called Noraduz, famous for being the biggest collection of Armenian khatchkars in the world. I had already visited the town before to see the cemetery, something I’ll write about later, and told Armen about my trip there and how I enjoyed it. He decided at that moment that I had to have coffee with him. Armenians love their coffee and inviting someone over for coffee is just what you do. It’s a super strong and black blend served in tiny little cups that are a bit bitter than shot glasses. Like an espresso maybe? I don’t drink a lot of coffee and I just wanted to get home so I turned him down. He was having none of that. Armen telling me how great his wife’s coffee was and planned on making me enjoy his hospitality come hell or high water.

I finally acquiesced. Normally I really enjoyed spending time with Armenians, but you have to remember I would be invited to someone’s house on nearly a daily basis. After a while you just wish you could say no. We pull up to his house and I help him unload the car. He introduces me to his wife, also in her early-mid fifties and directs me to sit down at the table. Armen went to wash up and returned asking me one of my favorite questions, ‘Do you drink vodka?’

‘Of course I do,’ I replied feeling much better about this excursion. I’m not a big coffee drinker but getting tipsy with older Armenian men was far and away one of my favorite experiences there. It wasn’t the booze as much as the stories. Maybe it was the alcohol that made them feel like they could talk about their lives more than just over coffee or dinner. But all my great stories I’ve heard from Armenian men, especially about their time in the Soviet Army came when alcohol was involved. I doubt it was the alcohol that loosened their tongues but more the fact that women normally don’t drink with men in Armenia and army stories are ‘guy talk.’

Armen brings out a bottle of vodka and a pair of shot glasses. His wife was flitting in and out of room asking about me every few minutes, interrupting her husband talk about the Noraduz cemetery and how much of a shame it was that the Azerbaijani authorities bulldozed a large set of khatchkars in Nakhichevan. We keep on doing shots and I’m feeling a bit loose and enjoying the company. Our conversation takes a whole bunch of twists and turns, covering everything from Obama’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide to why I’m not married just yet and how I should find a nice Armenian girl and settle down there.

And then all of the sudden the wife comes through the door with a huge platter of food. While her husband and I were chatting and drinking she had prepared this enormous meal for us. I would like to say I have no idea why, but I know exactly why. Armenians love visitors. It’s probably the same in many cultures of the region, but I haven’t been able to travel there much yet. Armenians do whatever they can to make a guest happy. It’s something in their national psyche. If a guest has a bad time at your house it means you’re a bad host and by extension a bad person. So this woman who I’ve never seen before baked a whole chicken, fresh bread, made a nice large vegetable and cheese platter because her husband brought home some random American to drink with. And to tell you the truth, it was awesome. I was a bit drunk and really could use some food, especially since I still had a bit of traveling to do.

So now the wife finally joins us to eat, she pulled out a bottle of wine and poured herself a shot glass of it to sip on. Rural Armenia doesn’t get many visitors so I assume the wine was to celebrate that fact. No pressure on me right? I might be the only American they’ll ever meet. We eat and drink and at least I had a really good time. It looked like they did too. I hope so. Dinner is over and the vodka is finished so I thank them for their hospitality and tell them I need to leave. Armen however is not done killing me with kindness. Instead of letting me walk the ten minutes to the main road (the exercise would have been nice after the alcohol) he drives me in his car and helps me flag down another ride. He absolutely refuses to leave, even after I told him three or four times I would be fine, until I get into another car. A pair of Armenian guys in their thirties stop for me, Armen starts talking to the driver just to make sure they knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but it was nice of him nonetheless. And then we took off, I chatted with two guys some and got home.

This is one of my favorite memories of the two years I spent in Armenia But it’s not unique. I have dozens of other examples of times I was hiking through the mountains and came across an Armenian family who invited me in for lunch. Or when I took some friends to see a 15th century church and we were absorbed into a large group of people paying their respects to dead relatives by visiting each grave while drinking and eating (how I want to be remembered). It was so common I took it for granted. Not being there any more makes me realize how much I didn’t appreciate their generosity. Too many times I would think, ‘I just don’t want to speak Armenian right now.’ You never know what you have until it’s gone, that’s what everyone says. I’m happy I got to experience Armenian hospitality and look forward to the day when I can return once again. This time I’ll appreciate it to the fullest.