My mom Nancy came to visit for just about a week, the second week in January. She got off the plane from a twenty hour commute excited and bursting with energy. It was midnight when we got to the hotel, and I figured she’d want to go right to bed, but when I told her some other volunteers were hanging out nearby she said she’d love to meet them. We taxied over there and had a great time discussing Armenia and the world, Nancy was bursting with questions and I know my friends had a great time meeting her.
She was like this the whole week, and as far as I saw never missed a beat from start to finish. I was amazed at her energy and eagerness to meet everyone and soak up as much of Armenia as a week can allow!
The first day we traveled by a packed bus to Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church. We chanced to get out at Hripsime, a huge and beautiful monastery a couple kilometers outside of the center. We talked with a kind veteran outside, who was shoveling the new crust of snow off the great stone courtyard. He told us the monastery was built in the 7th century, that he works there part time as a caretaker, and that they hold services every sunday and holiday. "But most people don’t come here," he said. "If you want to see the crowds, they’re down at Mayr Ator" (the Mother Seat).
Past the intricately carved door, the stark stone walls reached upwards to a huge dome in the center of the structure. A few trays with burning candles and a few paintings of Mary and Jesus decorated the room, drawing the eye toward paintings of saints on the side of the raised platform that formed the altar. We spoke some with the nuns in attendance, lit some candles with prayers and viewed the ancient doors and the grave of Hripsime in a tiny room under the altar.
Hripsime was a wonderful first, peaceful look at an Armenian church. Next we walked the main street past a Genocide memorial and down to the center of Echmiadzin, where the Seminary, Libraries, and the Mother Seat rest. The buildings were wonderful, with great domes or gates, and we saw priests-to-be with their beards and black robes, books held in hand, chatting and walking around the grounds. We turned and found what looked like the central church standing in a square surrounded by creatively manicured trees.
Mayr Ator was similar to a regular church on the outside, but in the archways we saw a hint of things to come: stone faces of angels carved and painted on the entrance arches, with no bodies and surrounded only by six wings. Inside, the walls, archways, the magnificent dome, were all plastered and beautifully painted. Chandeliers, huge paintings of events in the life of Jesus, and those swinging incense holders hung everywhere, a grand display. The original stone could only be seen in a couple of places where a neat square of plaster was missing from the wall, revealing the rough stone underneath, carved with crosses. We met a priest who knew some English and who, after answering a few questions and explaining that the paintings were four hundred years old, blessed us both in rapid Armenian.
We headed to Martuni that day, and, true to form, we boarded a marshutni (public van) that spent an hour waiting for passengers that never came before heading out for Martuni. We got in late and ate with my host family. We had a great time that night and the next, eating, talking, singing songs, showing pictures of the farm and talking about canning vegetables. In Armenia vegetables and fruits are much cheaper in the summer months, so everyone preserves pickled veggies and mouraba (there are a dozen kinds of this delicious, syrupy jam) Nancy found that their methods for canning were a bit different, less labor intensive than hers, and she took notes!
She had a great time talking with Sona, whose English has greatly improved in the past six months and who was very excited to meet her.
Sona, Artak, Camo, Nancy, Lala, Alla, Anna
Next we headed to Gyulagarak, the village in Lori Marz where I lived this summer. We visited my family, headed by Garnik, the school principal, who loves to talk as much as Nancy does. They had a great, animated discussion, with their trusty translator, of course. Nancy speaks very well with her hands and expressions, and so Garnik would every so often turn to me and say "Let me translate!" and explain to me what she said. Sometimes he missed it, but more often he was dead on. His wife Marietta, his sons Hayk, Hovik, and Karen, as well as Diana, Lucine, Sirushik, and the little ones Narek, Maretik, (little) Garnik, and Yerevandik, all gathered around and talked and played and did somersaults on the rug for our enjoyment.
After a day of food and drink, and a walk around the village, we headed to Gyumri, and when I told my friend Scott we were coming in for lunch the troops rallied for a grand reception. Gyumri is the second biggest city in Armenia. There are eight volunteers living there now, and a handful more were visiting for birthday parties at the time, including Johanna, who lives just outside Martuni but who we had missed on our visit. So we met about a dozen folks for lunch at a pizza place in Gyumri. Nancy chatted it up, we drank Gyumri beer, and ate a pizza she ordered which was topped with a thick layer of peas. Weird, but not bad. We got info from our friends on how to get up to Ashotsk, where the Olympians live.
We took a beat up old cab up the steep roads and into the mountains to Ashotsk, a tiny town in the coldest spot in Armenia. When we finally found their place near the hospital, Artur Mikaelyan greeted us in his sports suit and hat with a warm smile. He welcomed us and said: "It was 40 below last night." And it wasn’t too much warmer when we arrived. Artur’s father was Armenian, his mother is German, and his wife Alla is Russian. They both skied in the Nagano Olympics in 1998, and they run the only cross-country ski bed and breakfast in Armenia. They have two great kids, Sergei (15, a dark-haired, shy, lanky fellow) and Mika (8 years old, blond and beautiful). We settled in, had tea and delicious little pastries and blackberry jam with Alla, and then we headed out to ski! Luckily we brought our warm clothes, because it didn’t get much above zero F when we were there. But we kept moving and kept warm with the Olympians on our heels!
I had heard that the Mikaelyans were different from most Armenians. Health is their life: they don’t drink, they don’t smoke -- this in a country where eighty percent of men do both. They exercise every day and teach the local ski team, the best in Armenia. They don’t take any conventional medicine; they rely on home remedies using dozens of native plants and herbs for everything from muscle aches to the flu. Alla cooked for our two night stay; the food was delicious and very wholesome. Homemade wheat bread, borscht, meat, beet salad, cheese, herbal tea, all delicious and fresh. Nancy had a great time chatting with Alla, who speaks some English, about recipes for her delicious rosehip juice and jams.
Nancy and Mika leading -- Jason can't keep up!
On our second day we trekked up out of the valley with its frigid layer of fog and up onto a ridge, where the sun warmed us and views of the surrounding hills and mountains opened before our eyes. Alla and Mika trekked up with us and we had a great time laying tracks. The Mikaelyans do summer adventures, too, with small fleets of both canoes and mountain bikes at guests’ disposal. Artur showed us pictures, and the whole affair looks great. These folks run the only place of its kind that I know of in Armenia, and their food and care for guests is extraordinary. Artur wants to build a small guest house and expand their operation, and I’d love to help them out in any way I can, even if only to help get the word out.
Artur and Jason
We left the next day, healthy and happy, for Yerevan. We spent two nights in Yerevan at a very nice hotel called the Bass. We saw the Armenian History Museum, the Genocide Memorial, and the Matenadaran or Manuscript Museum which had fascinating texts from love poetry to scriptures, many beautifully decorated, showing the history of Armenian literature and scholarship since the alphabet was compiled in 405 AD by Mesrob Mashtots. We also had the chance to meet one of my language teachers from this summer, Meri Arakelyan. We ate with her at a new and awesome Indian place in Yerevan, and went out for karaoke afterwards!
It was a great, exhausting week. I had no idea how much work it is to be a translator! Thanks for coming, Mom! Myself, my friends and family here were all very happy to see you, and I’m thrilled you got to have a taste of Armenia. Everyone told her while she was here that she must come in the summer, in August, when it’s warm, green, and beautiful, and when the apricots are ripe! With all the farm work I know she won’t make it then, but we’ll leave that trip to Dad and Laura (and everyone else is welcome too!)