I recently spent a month in Yerevan, Armenia, the land of my ancestors. The capital of Armenia, Yerevan’s a vibrant city. The food rivals the stuff you’d eat in Paris, the city holds Armenian dance spectacles a few times a week, has an award-winning puppet theatre and a museum that houses scores of ancient manuscripts. There’s also a sweet Armenian carpet museum, which I really wanted to see but did not get to. You can also tour the country for $10 to see many ancient monasteries, little villages and Etchmiadzin, which is the mother church of all the Armenians on the planet who ascribe to the Apostolic faith. I have only seen the cathedral in pictures.
I still haven’t visited the Megerian carpet museum, or seen the manuscripts or the dance shows or Etchmiadzin. I haven’t told my family about this, because they’d be devastated. The reason is because I spent the greater part of my time in Yerevan standing on my balcony while staring at the regal Mount Ararat, (which, if you didn’t know, is where Noah is said to have parked his arc) and chain smoking.
If you’ve read my writings, it’s true I quit smoking during the summer of 2015 using the patch. Now I’ve quit again—using the patch. During my travels through Europe and Eurasia, I lit up again. Armenia didn’t help, given a pack of Marlboro Lights costs $1.20 US dollars. Now I should give myself credit because I didn’t just chain smoke on the balcony. I also guzzled cup after cup of Armenian coffee, which is the same thing as Turkish coffee or Greek coffee or Arabic coffee or Bosnian coffee—that thick stuff made of powdered grinds that you boil in a small copper pot. It’s supposed to be consumed in tiny little demitasse cups, but I drank it in regular coffee mugs.
I am sometimes an introvert, wanting to hole up in solitude to read or write or just recharge by staring at the infinitely fascinating cottage cheese ceiling that hovers over my bed. But I am equally an extrovert who desperately needs people to feel balanced. At home, I have a roommate, so even if I don’t get out and meet up with friends, I have a constant source of laughter, and someone to bounce my crazies off. The problem with Armenia wasn’t just that I had no friends—it was that I didn’t speak a word of Armenian.
I can be down in the dumps and isolated in Los Angeles, but just hitting the neighborhood coffee shop and striking up conversation with one of those overly-friendly, recently-transplanted mid-western baristas who pours me a $6 coffee helps me feel less alone. They might compliment my glasses (I have some cool pairs I got in Spain), talk about the weather, or try to sell me a $12 cold-pressed juice. But hey—at least I’m talking to someone!
By the time I’d been in Armenia for a week, I so missed those happy Midwestern kids—even the hipsters and yipsters. I also missed the super-friendly staff at Trader Joe’s when I accidentally broke a bottle of vodka at the Yerevan City Market and they made me pay for it, all֏ 2,500 Armenian Drams, which equals about $6.
In Armenia they have more vodka than I’ve ever seen in my life. It became a staple of the country when the Soviets hijacked the land. I’m talking an entire aisle filled with vodka in the grocery store. Russian vodkas and all sorts of Armenian vodkas. I’d never seen anything like it, even in a liquor store. My jaw just dropped. Did it tempt me, given vodka was my drink of choice? Not really. I was so petrified and socially anxious just going out to the market and suffering my way through paying for the many tubs of yogurt, yards of lavash and Russian cookies. More than anything it just looked ridiculous.
I slowly began to go insane without anyone to talk to. With the 12-hour time difference I couldn’t just call up my friends to have a chit-chat at any time. So, I decided to volunteer. I found a program called Birthright Armenia designed for diapsorans like myself, although you couldn’t be older than 32. I walked into the office anyway and was thrilled to see a bunch of young, outgoing English speakers.
When the guy at the front desk asked if he could help me I just blurted out “I’m an Armenian-American staying here for one month and I have no friends.” Everyone in the big open office laughed, and that included two other guys and a young woman. “I’ll be your friend!” said Sarkis, an Armenian from Holland. “We’re going to lunch at 1 pm, come with us!”
As excited as I was, I was also terrified. Meeting new people in an entirely foreign setting really triggers my social anxiety. It was so bad that at lunch, even with these unintimidating kids—all around 23 or 24—my hand kept shaking uncontrollably. One of the dudes, a medical student, zeroed in on it for a few minutes. I secretly hoped he thought it was a neurological issue not a sign of incredible insecurity. As bad as my social anxiety can get, I’d rather surround myself with people and just feel uncomfortable and awkward than be alone. It’s a weird mix—I’m terrified and fearless at the same time.
As it turned out, I could volunteer with another program called Armenian Volunteer Corps, since I was older. Doing this you attended mixers, cultural events, excursions to see the monasteries and even free Armenian lessons. Of course I signed up, and landed a volunteer placement at a media outlet in the city. You’d think this would have solved the problem, and it did to some degree. I did attend class and a mixer and went to dinner and lunch with people—I met the most wonderful people. There’s something about International types, or ex-pats, or just non-Americans that I really dig. It’s usually a combination of authenticity, openheartedness and the ability to sustain conversations of substance on topics like politics, world affairs, social justice, or culture.
But all this didn’t entirely solve my problem because I still got stuck in this inertia. Living alone, up on the fifth floor of a building overlooking a concrete square built in Stalinist style, just depressed me. I don’t know why, but every time I’ve stayed in a big building on a high floor, even to housesit at my friend’s loft in downtown Los Angeles, I get stuck and it’s hard for me to leave the house. And since I’ve lived with roommates for the past ten years, the aloneness really hit me hard and essentially exhausted me. Sure I like my space, but it’s also nice to have someone to chat with first thing in the morning.
So what happened? A whole lot of nothing, really. I didn’t take as much advantage of the wonderful programs and sites as I could have, but I did see a lot. And I am for sure going back, probably sooner rather than later. When I do, I’m going to find a way to get a roommate, stay with a host family, or click “private room” on Airbnb instead of staying in my own apartment.
Provided the person’s not crazy, it might help me have a better time.