My last week in Armenia was an intense test of everything I learned over the last nine months. Three of my cousins, Sharon, Mary Anne, and Lisa, came to visit, and I was the acting tour guide/translator for the group. Since they like eating and doing different things from me, I had to learn some new words (for example: salad and vegetable. I’m clearly not the healthiest eater… but the word for vegetable is banjareghen so can you really blame me for not learning it sooner?), and we had some dietary restrictions to convey. It literally took me the entire week to figure out how to explain them in a way that didn’t just confuse the server. At the last meal, I finally got it! Better late than never, right? (And the server complimented my Armenian so like no big deal or anything but I’m basically fluent 😉 hehe)
For the most part, we didn’t go anywhere I hadn’t already been. It was fun being the tour guide, though, and seeing just how much I’ve learned about the country and the different sites. Mary Anne brought a guidebook with her, and honestly, after reading what it said about the things we visited vs. what I’ve learned about those places, I think that they could have done a much better job. Based on the book, it sounds like there’s no reason to visit Armenia, there’s nothing interesting to see, and you’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’m biased, but I strongly disagree. They didn’t even include most of the hilariously awesome stories and legends that are such an essential part of the country’s personality. I’m ready to write a new guidebook for Armenia! All I need now is some funding and a whole lot of time.
Highlights of the week included:
attempting to visit a fortress for literally our first sightseeing destination and getting stuck on the snow-covered road there. Did you know that as you move to higher altitudes, it gets colder? (I know, this is shocking new information, I’m sure.) So even if it’s not cold or snowy in Yerevan, that doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere… especially at a fortress that is, by definition, built on high ground. Whoops.
maneuvering into and out of a 10ish foot deep pit after a certain person’s phone accidentally got dropped in (it wasn’t me! Name withheld to protect the innocent).
going out to dinner with my friends Olivia and Zoe and dancing to Armenian music like total lunatics (which is the only proper way to do it).
Like seriously every meal was fabulous. Because I did a WONDERFUL job of picking restaurants.
going on a quest to find Lisa’s suitcase at the airport after it got lost and finally made its way to Yerevan three days later. This involved me asking multiple people at the airport for directions, being sure that I was misunderstanding, and eventually figuring out that I had it right. PSA if you ever need to get a lost bag at Yerevan airport: go outside, walk around the back of the airport to where it totally looks like you should not go, and enter through the unexpectedly offset sliding glass doors (I almost walked into a pane of glass after making it through the first set).
getting followed around Yerevan for about an hour by two random Armenian guys because that’s what guys do there because what else would you do when you see a group of girls? Not cool (also very non-threatening, but still), but an enlightening cultural experience for the group.
seeing a hamster riding on the back of a bunny outside one of the shops in Yerevan. Picture included below.
going to a rendition of Romeo and Juliet that was nearly as unexpected as the Grinch puppet show. Everyone was dressed like they either lived underground in one of those post-apocalyptic movies or were part of a punk-rock band. They all had random leather accessories, and the set consisted of a series of platforms and ropes. I have no words to explain anything beyond that, but just know that I sat there with my jaw dropped for nearly the entire show.
In general, it was a lot of fun to spend time with my cousins and get to show them around. The four of us had never been on vacation together without the rest of our families, and it was exciting that it worked out so well. I mean, I guess it makes sense because our families have been travelling together forever, but still. Hopefully this is the first of many more cousin vacations!
When I came to Armenia, I hoped that my family would come to visit, but I thought there was no chance of it actually happening. My mom didn’t want to have to plan the trip, so in an attempt to convince her, I said that I would do all of the planning. It worked!!! They bought their plane tickets a few months back, and it even worked out for my brother Mike to come with them! I was so excited, but then that also meant that I had to plan.
If you know me well, you’ll know that I’m a planner. A lot of people say that about themselves, I know, but sometimes I think that maybe I take it to an extreme level. I love to plan. I love schedules. I love organization. This year has made me better at being flexible and spontaneous and adjusting to changes in the plan, but when I’m responsible for something like a family vacation, I hold nothing back. I spent a solid week putting together our schedule, researching and digging into every detail so that there would be no surprises. I found a driver and an apartment and started grilling my friends for restaurant recommendations. Then, everything was ready, and I could just be excited about getting to see them.
I don’t think I realized how much I missed everyone. To be honest, I almost cried when they walked out of the airport. (To be extra honest though, I cry for just about anything, so I don’t know how much we can trust that as an emotional gauge.) We spent their first afternoon wandering around Yerevan and getting everyone acclimated a bit before our first day’s adventure to one of my favorite places in Armenia… Gyumri!
It was a little weird going back to my old home. In so many ways, I loved it more than Yerevan. The city feels like a home, the people feel like your neighbors, and everything has a special kind of charm. Everyone says that people are nicer in Armenia in general, but people are seriously nicer in Gyumri. The best place to look for kindness is on a crowded marshrutka. I’m telling you, this is one of my favorite things. People give up their seats without a second thought for people with kids, the elderly, or just anyone who might need a seat more than they do. If you’re standing and holding a bag, there’s a good chance that someone sitting will offer to hold it on their lap for you, and you’ll let them because it will be completely safe with them. Or sometimes, if there’s not a real seat for you, someone will move over and let you sit on half of theirs. If someone is struggling with their things or struggling to climb on, people rush to help them without hesitation. As much as I hated having to stand half bent over on marshrutkas, I loved getting to be part of the complex social dance that took place every time a new person got on.
Anyway, I know that’s a bit of an aside, but that’s one of the things that always comes to mind when I think about Gyumri. Yes, some of that happens in Yerevan too, but it’s not the same.
I was excited to show my family my favorite city in Armenia, and during the planning process, I was stressed about how to possibly do it justice in such a short time period. I ended up making a list of every activity I could think of and then paring it down to the absolute must-sees and my personal favorites.
We started out at one of my favorite churches, the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. It’s a newer church, opened in 2015, and is one of the few Catholic churches here, but I just think the ceiling is amazing. I raved about this before, I know, but here it is again. It looks like every other Armenian church on the outside and then the inside is this elegant, modern adaptation of the classic design. The fact that I still remember it perfectly after seeing nearly infinity more churches since then speaks for itself.
From there, we walked through the market to the main square. Last time I walked through that market, it was my second weekend in Armenia, and I had a mime exchange with a shopkeeper while trying to buy shower supplies. I’ve come a long way since then! We checked out the churches in the main square, Yot Verk and All Saviors’, and stopped by Ponchik Monchik for coffee/hot chocolate and a ponchik and monchik. There’s nothing better than a sugary start to your day! In case you have somehow forgotten, ponchiks are kind of like condensed milk cream-filled donuts except a million times better, and monchiks are filled with Nutella instead. If you come to Armenia, you NEED to eat (at least) one of each, and you NEED to go to Gyumri to have them because Ponchik Monchik has the best ones. I’m not being paid for that endorsement, it’s just a fact.
I showed them around my old office (GTC), the park, Mother Armenia, and the Black Fortress (Sev Berd). I had my first big Armenian test at Sev Berd. There’s a gatekeeper, and I heard through the grapevine that if you ask to be let in, you might get to see the inside! We decided to give it a try, and sure enough, I asked the gatekeeper if we could see the fort (in my fabulously fluent Armenian), he called someone to check, and in we went!
At the top of the hill, we were met by another guy who showed us around. We got to go inside!!! It’s so cool! They’ve redone the inside to make it an event venue, and underneath the stage, there’s a mini-museum with some old pictures of Gyumri and the fortress, plus you can see the old well! From there, he took us up to see the box seating and finally, the roof! We had a great view of the city and Mother Armenia and could even see Turkey to the west. The whole time, the guy was talking and talking in Armenian, and Dad and I were doing the best we could to translate. Honestly, I think we did a decent job. We were at least better than nothing, so that’s something! (hehehe)
The best part of the day, though, was probably lunch. Karen and Sona, the Birthright Gyumri coordinators from the summer, met up with us. I became good friends with both of them and was excited to introduce them to my family. You never know how things are going to go when you bring different groups together, but I always just assume that if I like everyone, they’re going to also like each other. It hasn’t failed me yet! Maybe I’m putting words in everyone’s mouths, but I think we all had a lot of fun.
Our last couple of stops were Ani district, the neighborhood where we lived, and Marmashen, a monastery west of town. By the time we got back to Yerevan, everyone was wiped out but happy with the day. Phew! There’s nothing better than planning something and having it go perfectly. We had a VERY ambitious week ahead, so it was encouraging to get off to a smooth start.