Vartabedian: A Few Parting Memories Of Armenia

By Tom Vartabedian

8/02/vartabedian-a-few-parting-memories-of-armenia /
August 2, 2009

As with any trip to Armenia, it’s like tooting a horn. You get out
of it what you put in.

My first venture was with a tour group of friends from Merrimack
Valley. We stuck to an itinerary and visited the popular sites
throughout the country.

A return visit three years later put me on a different course. I
traveled with a friend (Joe Dagdigian of Harvard, Mass.) and we spent
most of our three weeks combing the more remote villages seldom seen
on commercial junkets.

It was an Armenia not to be missed and we did it on our own with a
hired driver, road maps, compasses, and a savvy guide. Dagdigian is
like a human GPS when it comes to the geographics, having a place in
Yerevan where we stayed and visited the many folks he knew.

Dagdigian was a sight to behold one day when he left the car in
a driving hailstorm to photograph a church miles from nowhere in
Lernagert. With a camera in one hand and an umbrella in another,
he was a man on a mission. Sometimes you have to be a little crazy
to get the best shot and he wound up with some beauts that day while
I watched from a window.

*** There we were at Heathrow Airport in London on the second day
of our trip. As scheduling would have it, we faced a 12-hour layover
before boarding a connecting flight to Zvartnots Airport. As the day
wore on, some familiar faces crossed our path.

The first belonged to Susan Lind-Sinanian from the Armenian Library
and Museum of America (ALMA), who was headed to Armenia for an
international dance conference. Susan and her husband Gary have
dedicated many years to promoting and teaching Armenian dance. After
all these years, she still has the passion.

We were later joined by Dr. Levon Saryan, who was on his way to Yerevan
for a proud moment: He was to be inducted into the National Academy
of Arts and Sciences in Armenia-a tribute well deserved for someone
who has involved himself in that medium over the decades. Saryan is
also a noted Armenian numismatist (coin-collector), having written
volumes on the subject.

So there we all were, miles from home, different parts of the
country, meeting in the most unlikeliest of places and all for the
same reason. A return trip to Armenia.

*** Call it destiny but the only times we were able to catch a clear
view of Ararat was the morning after we arrived and the day of our
departure three weeks later. It was as if Massis was saying hello
and goodbye in the same breath.

To see its towering presence over the city of Yerevan is a most
inspiring scene to be cherished forever. No matter how many times
you photograph the mountain, it still beckons for more.

*** The best entertainment that money cannot buy could be found
at dusk around Republic Square where the dancing fountains work
their magic with some of the best music to fill the air on a spring
evening. Hundreds would turn out for the nocturnal spectacle. And it
didn’t cost a cent.

*** Just wondering …

-How come there are few obese people in Armenia when there are few
gyms for those who can afford them? Is it because they eat the right
foods, walk off any extra calories, and work faithfully?

-How come you can’t get a good cup of American coffee in Armenia and
have to settle for Nescafe should a caffeine-attack beckon? You won’t
find a McDonald’s in Yerevan, either, but there’s a KFC if you’re in
the mood for chicken.

-How come more folks aren’t wearing sneakers as opposed to shoes? And
if there are so many shoes, where are the cobblers to repair them? I
found only one shop in Stepanagert (Karabagh) and two employees were
doing such a bang-up business, they didn’t even know they were being

-With such a tight economy and "free" money at a premium, how come
the casinos are still operating? A stretch of these gambling houses
resembles a mini Las Vegas as you approach the downtown sector.

-Why is it that a working professional might earn as little as $140 a
month but if you hire a driver with no education, he’s typically paid
$40 a day plus gas, food, and hotel expenses during an overnight? One
street musician I encountered with no license was earning an average
month’s wages in one week from the sympathetic public.

-Why is Yerevan thriving with its economy, while 20 miles outside the
mainland, there isn’t any? Why doesn’t the government do something to
improve the sanitation in some of these places, especially destinations
that attract tourism?

-Why are the village roads in such deplorable condition, forcing
cars to zigzag their way through potholes that resemble the size of
moon craters?

-Why do the exchange centers frown upon low denominations and will
kick back any bill that’s worn or in any way mutilated? Tourists
looking to distribute American notes in the villages better think
again. Where would the recipient redeem them? For those who wish to
exercise their thrift, a better alternative might be to carry around
a pocket full of loose Armenian change (drams).

-With the rate of exchange nearly 3.75-1 for the American dollar,
how come I wound up spending more money on incidentals than I ever


After three weeks, I returned a more conscientious Armenian, rich in
spirit, more proficient linguistically, with a better appreciation
for the land and its culture, more respect for its people, and a
greater aptitude for our venerable history.

It only seems to get better with each visit.