|I am often asked about my impressions of life in Armenia, the difficulties, the humor, how living here affects me, and the differences between life here and in America. My plan in Scenes and Observations is to talk about life in general, so visitors can see how people live, and hopefully come away with a better sense of what life is like in this very old part of the world. You are also invited to read Yerevan Journal, my regularly updated supplement to “Scenes,” now located on its own page.|
Anastasavan is a neighborhood located in Ajapnyak, a major suburb of Yerevan. It is made up almost entirely of people from Abaran, as are Tavitashen, Yerort Gyugh, Chorort Gyugh, Noragyugh (Third, Fourth, and New villages), and Kasakh. It has been my home since moving to Yerevan in 2000. It is made up mostly of private houses with garden space, although there are several tall apartment buildings, our flat being in one of these buildings.
Being early winter, the street scenes have changed from countless nardi (backgammon) games going on and huge stacks of melons for sale to men chopping wood, and stacks of giant cabbages, cauliflower, and apples. Often, cars and trucks are loaded entirely with cabbages and are parked along the road, the cabbages selling for about 15 cents per kilo. The cabbages are used mostly for pickling (known here as tutoo). The lighter, less dense ones are kept all winter for making dolma.
Recently, to everyone’s delight, two new bread stores opened in Anastasavan, both with tonirs where women roll and bake lavash in the same manner as is done in villages all over Armenia. I bought our first kilo just the other day, and now we’re enjoying the real thing.
A couple of nights ago, our neighbors who are originally from Kyavar, near Lake Sevan, stopped by and asked if we wanted fresh fish from Sevan. Impossible to resist, we bought three fish, all for 300 dram (about 70 cents), and enjoyed oven-baked Sig, which is now the main variety of fish in Sevan.
My mother-in-law, born in the village of Byurakan, is an expert in Armenian folk wisdom, both simple and profound. While having dinner at her home recently, I was preparing a toast to her health when she said this about drinking arak: “Megu lav, yergoosu pav, yerrortu tsav.” Or, the first is fine, the second is enough, the third brings pain. She said I had to drink two. So I did.
After dinner I went with Aroosik, my wife’s niece, to the neighbor’s to get fresh milk. Melkon was slicing cabbage for turshi (tutoo) salad with carrots. There was a houseful of people, including Melkon’s sister-in-law, brother, two small children, and his mother and father, who were born in Isfahan, in Iran. I understood very little of what his father was saying, this being my first time to hear the Isfahan dialect. We were just picking up the milk, but they said that we at least had to have coffee, so I said fine. Then they said I should have at least one drink of oghi. Again, I said fine. Then they brought bread and khozi mis (barbecued pork). I said, only one drink. They poured me some khaghoghi oghi (arak made from grapes) which was very good. Then they said I had to drink two, because my father-in-law always insisted on two or more when they visited his house. So I had two.
These people were not unusual in any way. This kind of hospitality is just part of living here.
Always something to learn
The other day, I went with a friend to buy honey from Vartenis, a town near Lake Sevan, on the road to Kelbajar and Karabagh. To show us how clean and pure the honey was, the person selling it spread some honey on a piece of paper and lit a match. When the honey didn’t burn, he explained how some people will cook honey before selling it, adding sugar or spices, thereby extending the honey they have to sell. Also, some beekeepers, when they see there isn’t enough honey left behind in the hives for the bees to feed on, will give them sugar-water. The honey that results from this diet isn’t considered clean. When a match is held to the unclean honey, the honey burns.
Bagaran is a quiet village located alongside the Akhurian River, close to where the Arax and Akhurian rivers meet. Old Bagaran, found just across the river, was one of the capitals of old Armenia. It is now populated by Turks, Armenians living there until the fall of the Armenian Republic in 1920.
I was in Bagaran recently to celebrate the grand opening of a giant pump which draws water from the Akhurian to irrigate a large area of previously dry, uncultivated land. The result is that hundreds of hectares are now in production of corn, wheat, and other crops, which gives an income and employment to the population of Bagaran and nearby villages. The celebration was watched by Turkish soldiers stationed on a peak across the river. The blaring of zurnas and beating of the dhol brought them to their feet as they joined in the dancing from their distant peak. Women from Bagaran sang traditional songs of celebration, in a rustic way unique to the villages of Armenia.
As everyone was celebrating, I saw a soldier sitting along the river on the Turkish side of the border. I later found out the reason for his dejected, almost forlorn look. He was an Armenian from the Hamshen region of Turkey, near Trebezond, where Armenians who converted to Islam in the 1700s still speak a dialect of Armenian. The soldier looked on sadly at his countrymen, unable to cross the river and join them in their celebration.
The Armenians of Bagaran have an exceptionally strong bond with old Bagaran and its history. Bagarantsis of any age can tell the history of old Bagaran and the nearby city of Ani, which is only a few kilometers north and on the other side of the river in Turkey. While standing on top of a plateau overlooking the Akhurian, old Bagaran, and the church Shooshanik (on the Armenian side of the river), a Bagarantsi told me about his village: “The house where the tractor is parked is where my grandmother lived. She lived there until 1920. My uncle’s house is at the end of the street. Our family can be traced back 300 years.” He went on to tell me the history of Gevorg Marzbed (of the kingdom of Ani), who is buried nearby, the ancient church of Mren, and the history of Ani during the Middle Ages. While he was speaking, I felt myself a part of the land and its history, of all Armenia, and especially of the village of Bagaran.
Tavitashen is one of several villages in the region of Talin, north of Ashtarak and on the road to Gyumri (formerly Leninakan). These villages are populated almost entirely by Sassountsis, with a small number of Mshetsis. I was in the neighboring village of Katnaghpyur a year ago, and readily accepted a last-minute invitation to go to Tavitashen.
I was invited by friends who had relatives in the village. On the way there, we bought two chickens to cook for dinner. After a brief greeting, we said we were going to Talin to see the seventh century church there, and asked them to have the chickens ready upon our return. As we were leaving, I saw my friend’s aunt walking toward the back of the house with a chicken under one arm and a knife in her hand.
It was my first time in Talin. The weather being quite cold, we went straight to the Katoghike Monastery, which consists of a recently reconstructed church that resembles Karmravor in Ashtarak, and a large domeless cathedral. We took pictures and investigated the area. From the remnants of a small stone structure that may have been living quarters or a library, we followed some steps into an interesting underground room.
When we returned to the village, the table was already set with various cheeses, pickles, and tonir lavash. Before we ate, I talked with Abkar about his family’s home near Sassoun, and their flight to Armenia in 1918, fighting Turks all the way until they reached the Talin area. I learned that they didn’t continue further south because they wanted to stay closer to their native Sassoun, in hopes of returning to their “yerkir.”
We had a wonderful dinner of chicken and bulghur pilaf, all the while toasting our meeting and our ancestors from Sassoun and Moush. We took pictures, listened to the children sing songs about Garegin Nzhdeh and General Andranik, and planned the next gathering in the spring, which included the decision of having the famous Armenian breakfast of “khash.”
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