The view changes from moment to moment on this mountaintop in Dilijan, Armenia. Clouds float by to reveal a peak, and shadows fall on yet another.
It’s been 15 years since I moved to Armenia just out of college. I’m not quite as naïve or ignorant as I was then, but my formative years continue. Every day, someone says something that opens my eyes a little wider, and, like the mountains, the darkness lifts from one mystery only to cast darkness on another.
The past two years of my life have been filled with intense introspection. I haven’t liked everything I’ve found, but I have had to own it all. Armenia has reached that point, too. People leave only to return to own what is theirs, with all the good and all the bad.
Now I sit in a mountain town where there are chickens clucking at any hour. It takes me back to my first days in the tiny village of Akunk. I awoke every day to the crows of roosters and the fresh smells that can only be found in a village. At the breakfast table would be a pitcher of hot cocoa made with fresh cow’s milk. Even the finest of wines don’t feel quite as decadent in comparison.
From below rise the sounds of children playing, while crickets sing steadily at my feet. I can hear the cars driving down the highway, but I know that there are a few kilometers of rough road between me and them. My friend yells at his dog to stop barking at passers-by, and the neighbors call (again) to insist that we come over for a cup of coffee that will almost certainly involve several kinds of meat, overlapping plates of vegetables and salads, a dozen dessert offerings, and six other kinds of drink.
While the people of Yerevan sweat through the day, we in Dilijan enjoy the clear air and cool temperatures. It’s hard to believe that an hour drive makes such a difference. In Yerevan, my calves hurt from walking. In Dilijan, my muscles begin to atrophy. Maybe I should walk further up the mountain. Maybe after a few more days I won’t grind my teeth at night. And so I sit, nearly motionless, feeling compelled to do nothing except exactly what I am doing. Which is to say, nothing much at all.
There’s a walnut tree growing on the steep hill in front of me. I imagine how deep and strong its roots must be to survive, and I realize that it represents the Armenians’ own story of remaining upright and forever reaching for the light. Life can be lived on an incline. And maybe it must, if it is to mean anything.
Armenia is so different than it was 15 years ago. It has changed in ways that are superficial and profound, subtle and blatant. Then again, so have I.
It is a place where people are constantly negotiating their identities, Diasporans and native Hayasdantsis alike. For my part, I am neither, yet I am both. When I first arrived, I was simply a foreigner–possibly lost, possibly a spy, definitely an idealistic youth, but mostly foreign.
Over the years, as more and more diasporans have visited and repatriated to Armenia, I have been assumed a fair-skinned diasporan. This past week, several people have asked if I’m a Hayaget, the word for Armenian scholar. Well, maybe, if they accept my life as course credit.
Hybrid identities and all, my friend and I will drink a bottle of Armenian wine tonight, accompanied by the salty, smoked cheese that I always rush to the market to buy on arrival. By the end of the bottle, we’ll have made sense of nothing, but feel better about the complicated mess that is life in Armenia, and everywhere.
The nights are quiet in the mountains of Dilijan. I’ll wake early, but leave my bed only after much deliberation and delay. When I’m back in Yerevan, the buzz of the city will move me along, and I will let serendipity rule the day. Only when I let serendipity rule do I get exactly what I didn’t know I needed. With all the good and all the bad.