By: Leigha Schjelderup and Kelsey Adrian
As the plane descended into Yerevan, it finally hit me that we had done it; we were actually here. You see, my two cousins and I had always wanted to go to Armenia. Though born and raised in the United States to two refugee parents, our grandmother was a proud Armenian woman. Despite the fact our families hadn’t imparted much of the culture on us growing up, we loved Granny for her boisterous, generous personality and wanted to know more about her family’s history. As she had passed away the previous year, we wished to reconnect with her through our largely unexplored heritage.
We decided April 2017 was the perfect time to see the country, as my cousin Leigha was ending her year studying abroad in Barcelona, our cousin Megan was applying to medical school, and I was starting my graduate degree in August. After hesitating to commit for so long, we decided to take the plunge and book our flights. Unfortunately, a snowboarding accident that February had prevented Megan from making the trip. Her adventurous soul was with us in spirit, however, and we are confident the three of us will go back again together someday.
This was my first time out of the country alone, and to say I was out of my element is an understatement. After making it through customs and grabbing my bags, I recognized a man holding the sign of the hostel we were staying in for our time spent in Yerevan.
The man—my driver, Gerkin—greeted me stating, “Hello, Miss Adrian,” mistaking my surname for my first.
I responded saying “Hey, how’s it going?” a typical colloquial response in English.
Taking the question literally, he confusedly replied “How is what going?”
That was when I realized: Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore!
As Leigha had yet to touch down, my first day in Armenia was spent exploring Yerevan with a friend I made at our hostel. Though I was jet-lagged and delirious, we spent hours wandering the streets of the city, strolling through beautiful Republic Square; huffing and puffing our way up the Cascade. A miraculously clear day, my first full sight of Mt. Ararat took my breath away. Once regaining my bearings, I felt more confident to wander through the city, paying no attention to any particular destination. By the time Leigha arrived, I was a bonafide tour guide, eager to show her all of my newfound favorite sites.
Before embarking on the trip, my mom handed me an envelope full of old photos from her own time visiting Armenia in 1988. She stayed with our family—cousins of my grandmother—that we had regretfully fallen out of touch with. Though none of us truly believed we would be able to find our relatives, Leigha and I were excited to have a glimpse into our family’s roots within the country.
Though virtual strangers, we felt a sense of connection with the faces on the faded photographs. We even had fun recreating one of the photos of my mom and her friend in front of the fountain at Republic Square! Little did we know— thanks to the help and direction from our newfound friends Raffi and Vartan—they would show up on our doorstep before the end of the week.
In my crash-course tour of the city the day before, my friend Josh from the hostel introduced me to one of his friends, Raffi, who worked in a Impact Hub. Through Raffi, Leigha and I were introduced to Vartan, the Executive Director for Repat Armenia—an organization that helps facilitate expat’s transition back to the homeland. After hearing our story and seeing the old photos, Vartan asserted—to our surprise—that we could very easily figure out who the people in the pictures were.
We could find our family? People we didn’t know existed a week previously? It seemed like a long shot, but we were nevertheless eager to try. We were instructed to make a Facebook post with all the information we had about the pictures, which Vartan helped circulate around his social media networks. Excited, yet mildly skeptical whether this would work, we left for dinner that night. Back at our hostel two hours later, we received a call from a man named Edgar Khatchaturyan: our cousin, who had recognized his mom Naziq in one of the photos we had posted to facebook.
The next morning, three gentlemen were waiting outside our hostel: Gevorg, Narek and their friend Aram. Though confused at first, we were stunned as Gevorg showed us a picture of himself and our Grandmother Rose—or Servart, as they knew her. It was an ecstatic yet surreal experience to say the least, and we did what we did most of the trip: got into cars with people we barely knew. In Armenia, we were happy with being ‘along for the ride.’
Together, we spent the afternoon venturing around the city. We were especially happy to have our teenage cousin Narek with us in Vernissage Market, as he helped immensely in the haggling process. We went to their home later that day, pouring over the photos with even MORE family members as they treated us to the most amazing food.
Though they had only become aware that we existed the day before, we were welcomed into their family with open arms and hearts. Being that we were from across the world, speaking barely a few words of their mother tongue, we never felt like strangers. It was incredible, something that neither Leigha and I had ever dreamed experiencing in our lifetime.
Along with reconnecting with our family, during our trip we traversed the Armenian countryside, venturing to other smaller cities across the nation. Rather than booking through larger tour companies, we took advantage of the personalized experience offered through a private guide. Almost dying from laughter with our witty and wicked smart guide Anna, we explored religious sites such as Garni, Geghard, and Etchmiadzin, to the shores of Lake Sevan, winding through beautiful Dilijan, marveling at Noravank, and the suspension bridge in Khndzoresk village.
We stayed with a local family in a village near Tatev, thankful for their unrelenting hospitality as we helped ourselves to leftovers from their Easter feast, and struggled to keep up with the moving toasts and bottomless shot glasses of Vodka. Exploring the country with Anna as our translator, food guru and tour guide, we were able to experience all that Armenia has to offer as true locals.
After rendezvousing with friends in Georgia for nearly a week, we returned to Yerevan: this time with one of our friends in-tow, a German girl named Charlott. All three of us were lucky enough to spend Genocide Remembrance Day with another of our relatives: Tamara, who was visiting her mother, my Great Grandmother’s sister. It’s hard for us to put into words how special it was to be with our Armenian family on this day of remembrance. We were able to piece together our family tree, as we still were unsure of how everyone was related—something our parents didn’t even know!
Though the majority of our visit was spent laughing through our language barrier, indulging in a beautiful lunch made for us, and getting to know our family, the tragedy of the day was not forgotten. We had learned that our Grandmother’s Aunt had died as her family fled from their home in search of safety during the Genocide, something we somberly kept in mind as we walked through the flower-filled memorial that evening.
We ended the night at our other cousins’ home, laughing while snacking on dried apricots as we watched Charlott DESTROY little Narek at FIFA, to his disbelief (Leigha and I had not proven worthy opponents). If there’s one word of advice we have to those planning on coming to Armenia, it’s this: even if you don’t have any family in the country, try and reach out to any connections you might have, no matter how distant! Although we arrived knowing practically no one, we never felt like strangers and were welcomed with open arms by everyone we met. Seeing Armenia through a local’s eyes is an invaluable experience, so don’t be afraid to venture out of your comfort zone and make new, lifelong friends.
Our last day in Armenia, we ate at Tapastan and enjoyed the last night of amazing, fresh food. We reminisced over what an incredible trip we had, mutually reluctant to leave. That evening, we were tasked with cramming all of the keepsakes we had accumulated into our bursting-at-the-seams suitcases: if we had to leave Armenia, we were going to try and take of much as it as we could with us!
We had come to this country with open minds and little expectations—while we see signs of this changing, Armenia is rarely referred to back home as a tourist destination. In fact, it’s rarely mentioned at all. This made the trip that much more amazing—we felt as if we were apart of the world’s best-kept secret, liberated from the usual hoards of tourists that often accompany overseas vacations.
Originally, I thought the language barrier was going to be a huge issue, and that I was going to feel less safe than I did - given everything that the news projects about this part of the world. To be fair, for those who don't know the language, Armenian can be extremely intimidating. It took us a solid week to learn how to say "thank you," which even locals have abandoned in favor of borrowing "merci" from the French (a quirk we were extremely grateful for in the beginning!)
We were ecstatic after eventually perfecting the phrase, and a big “shnorhakalut’yun” to everyone who helped us along the way! While the language barrier was a persistent issue in taxis particularly (during one experience, Leigha and I rode around in circles with a driver who spoke only Armenian and Russian), many more young people knew English than expected. In restaurants, we had no problem and many waiters knew enough English to get by. In our hostel, everyone knew English and it was easy to pay for the hostels and ask what the ‘must see’ sites were in the city. In fact, some of the sites the hostel recommended were our favorite. While having our native language accommodated made communicating way easier, Armenian is a beautiful and captivating language in itself. Less-than-perfect pronunciation aside, we were able to pick up a new word or phrase with each passing day.
Despite the well-meaning worries of our friends and family, we couldn’t have felt more safe in Armenia. Even though it hosts a third of the country's population, Yerevan has the comfortable feel of a small town. We spent many warm evenings walking through the city, taking advantage of Yerevan’s thriving Cafe culture. We would talk to random passersby as if they were long time friends. Within a couple of days, we were even bumping into people we knew in the street, and it became a running joke that our social network in Yerevan had already surpassed our one at home! Truly the Armenian people are the most friendly, inviting people I have ever met and are eager to get to know you.
We loved Armenia; The food, the people, the lifestyle, and how the focus is on enjoyment of life, family, friends, faith, and love. It’s an incredible feeling stepping outside our home environments; being apart of that. All this being said, we barely spent three weeks in the country.
Awestruck and enraptured by the newness and novelty of it all, we were arguably stuck in the honeymoon stage for the duration of our trip. The country is facing its own set of hardships, and there were times where the regional political tension could have been cut by a knife. Nevertheless, our time there was enough to impart that the country, though rich with history and culture and a resilient, spirited people, is not without its own complicated issues and inner dynamic. Truthfully, this only made our experience that much more impactful.
Here’s a couple logistical words for the wise, as well as things that stood out to us during our trip:
- Splitting checks is rare - know that one bill and one person paying for the bill is expected.
- Always have some cash on you - I was in many situations where card wasn’t accepted or we had to go searching for an ATM.
- Try and go to an Armenian family’s home and have an authentic meal. We stayed with a host family and it was such a fun experience having homemade food and seeing what life is like outside the city.
- As a young woman, everyone will ask if you’re married- so get used to it!
- Guests are treated like gold, something we were unaccustomed to in the US.
- People know you’re not from Armenia. Leigha and I could tell we stood out in many situations, but we never felt unsafe, people just seemed curious.
- One of the many things that shocked me being abroad was that everyone is trilingual. Most people knew Armenian, Russian, and English! Growing up in the U.S., our foreign language education, I realized, was pathetic.
-Armenians can be in the heat of an argument one second and best friends the next. They don’t hold grudges and wear their heart on their sleeve.
-When people offer you more food, they don’t wait for a response. One way of the other, you won’t leave the table until you’re absolutely stuffed. Don’t fight it, enjoy it while you can!
Also, recommendations! You can’t go wrong with these Yerevan gems:
-The Green Bean
-Invino Wine Bar
-Eden pub bar
Best sites to see/things to do:
-Garni & Geghard
-Areni Winery - one of the oldest wineries in civilization!
-Genocide Memorial and museum
-Paraglide with Glide Adventures -- and see Armenia from a completely different angle!
-Tbilisi, Georgia - take a trip here for a few days, it’s beautiful. However, we missed Armenia.
It was truly an amazing trip. I encourage anyone, Armenian, American, and everything in between to not hesitate traveling to this part of the world. Most succinctly stated by our tour guide-turned-good friend Anna Avagyan, “Armenia has no limits with food, wine and love.” We came to the country empty of many expectations, and left with hearts even fuller than our bellies. Genats, Hayastan. We can’t wait to see you again soon.
Discovering Family a World Apart
By: Leigha Schjelderup and Kelsey Adrian