It is 72 degrees outside in Gyumri, with promises to get much hotter, yet my host mother will not let me leave without a jacket. By this point in my stay, I have learned not to argue with her, so I run back into the apartment and grab my jacket. She smiles and sends me off for the day.
Armenia. It is a beautiful, historic land of fiercely proud people. I traveled there this summer as a volunteer with Birthright Armenia, an organization for diasporan young people like me who claim Armenian as part of their ethnic heritage. I spent five weeks living with a host family, volunteering, taking language lessons, excursions, meeting fellow Armenians from all over the world, and making memories to last a lifetime.
When people ask me what the best thing was about my experience, I am hard pressed to pick just one. In lieu of that, here are the top five things I learned during my time in Armenia:
▪ Hospitality. Growing up as an Armenian-American, I learned at a young age that hospitality is extremely important. When people visit your home, you offer them food and drink. You stop what you are doing to sit down and have a conversation with them.
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Now, after having lived in Armenia, I can see that hospitality is the bedrock of the culture. Who you are isn’t important. It only matters that you are someone’s guest and it is their duty to treat you like a VIP I can still hear my host father imploring me, “Kira-jan, (dear Kira) come eat!” You are welcomed into any home you enter with open arms, a plate of food and a glass of wine. And when it comes time for you to go, they beg you to stay longer. It is an amazing thing to experience.
▪ History. This is a very important aspect of Armenian life, and people there are eager to teach you about their history, proudly sharing it with anyone who will listen. My translator regularly quizzed me on my knowledge of Armenian history, and she was thrilled whenever I wanted to learn more. Probably many young Armenian-Americans like me know the basics, but sometimes I think we fail to go deeper, learn more and understand the history. Armenians are extremely proud of their ancient roots, perseverance and survival through the ages and it keeps their culture alive.
▪ Sing. Dance. Drink coffee. I have never done as much singing and dancing as I did in Armenia. In fact, it was a daily occurrence. The people come alive when there is singing and dancing (and the copious amounts of delicious, strong coffee they drink probably contributes, too). It’s not just important culturally; it also ties people together and tells the stories of Armenia. You do not have to be a gifted singer or dancer. What matters is that you join in the fun. But pace yourself on that strong coffee!
▪ Be present in the moment. About three weeks into my journey, I found myself thinking I was ready to go home. I was already considering the tasks that needed to be accomplished to prepare for my new job. But with two weeks remaining in my trip and lots more to see and do in Armenia, I reminded myself that I had waited my whole life to come to Armenia. If I did not stop to enjoy it now, I would miss out on great experiences. Once I became present in the moment of what was happening, I became much happier and thoroughly enjoyed each new experience. This concept is one I’m going to try to practice in my daily life – I want to be present and show up for each day, embrace what is happening around me.
▪ Try new things. This was the theme of my whole Armenian adventure. I know there is comfort in the routine, but there is something to be said for exploring new places, trying new foods, meeting new people and embracing new adventures. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of days that I longed for a Starbucks Frappuccino and a cheeseburger from In-N-Out. But I can honestly say now that embracing new things in Armenia was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
There is a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Do not miss it! And don’t forget your jacket.
Kira Armbruster – a.k.a. Kira-jan – is a school psychologist with the Fresno County Office of Education.