The Spring

by Nina Shahverdyan

It was a warm sunny morning that day in Stepanakert, one of those when you finally wear a short-sleeved top and mom doesn’t get angry at you― that kind of a sunny morning. I went to school on foot with a classmate of mine, walking through the lively park in the city center, both of us calm and happy, both unaware of what’s going on around. As soon as we entered class, we saw some girls crying and people- in hysteria. Teachers were stressed out. “The war has started,” they said.

The war has started. I didn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe that. The war can’t start in my motherland. It can’t. Not here, not now. Not with me. It was so hard to accept that that I ended up sitting straight and wondering why were all the girls in my class so hysterical. Something happened on the borders, but why would they call it a war? At one point, however, I realized the whole school was mourning, and lots of people were running home. The principal canceled classes after an hour. We were all sent home. “Fast,” she said.

It was April the first, but it wasn’t a joke. 

The war couldn’t start. Yet it did. 

My memories of the rest of the days are chaotic. The only thing that’s clear in my mind is my mom, cleaning the house and washing the windows.

– The war has started,-I said.

– The house should be clean,- she said.

Back then I couldn’t understand her. Why would she clean a house which potentially could be ruined in a few days? Why would she think about cleaning when there is war outside? The answer is so obvious now. She was cleaning the house because it was the only way for her to continue living as always, to pretend that nothing was happening, to stay calm. She had 4 children looking at her―panicking was not an option. My mom was strong. Unlike me.

The only thing I could do was sit on the couch, crying for every name of a perished soldier.

– We have to go to Yerevan, dad. The war has started.

These were the most foolish words I have ever said in my life. My dad looked at me seriously, if not angry, and said, “The war has started. That’s why we should stay here.” And we stayed, while all of my friends moved to Yerevan and stayed there long after the war had finished, afraid to come, afraid to die. 

My eight-year-old brother, who always wanted to become a soldier, told me he changed his mind.

– I don’t want to die, Nina,-he said.

-You should defend your motherland,- I said.

-I don’t want to fight,- he said.

We ended our conversation on that. I was lying on the bed with him, hugging him and trying to tell a fairytale, a happy fairytale. But instead, I was just hugging him tighter and tighter and thinking of a small schoolboy who died that morning because of a bomb. 

Children shouldn’t die. Children shouldn’t worry. And yet that was the only thing my brother saw: people in panic. That’s when I decided I don’t want to become president anymore: I abandoned a childhood dream. I had it for 16 years. 

I imagined me being the first female president in Armenia, imagined being the first one who will solve the Artsakh issue, imagined being the first to get rid of poverty in the whole country. I had a utopic understanding of politics back then, a strong belief that just one good politician can save a country. I dreamt to be that one politician. I dreamt to see Armenia great again, as great as it was during the era of Tigran Mets, one of the most powerful kings of ancient Armenia. Well, turns out, dreams don’t come true.

I asked my dad why wars happen. He said it’s because of politics. I got sad. Politics have the power to establish peace and yet they choose to end the lives of people whose only guilt is to be of a certain nation.

– I wish our president knew about what would happen,- I said, – he could prepare and stop the Azerbaijanis.

My dad looked at me seriously, if not pitifully. “ All of them knew, Nina, all of them knew.” 

Something broke inside of me. Something very special, very important. I didn’t feel complete. I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t understand our presidents. How can a president know that foes will attack and yet do nothing? Why do they call themselves presidents? A president thinks about his country, a president cares.

– How can a person be so cruel, dad? – I asked.- How could they know and still let them do that? How could they know and still not prepare? How could they do that to our country, dad?”

-They didn’t have other options,- he said, -They were forced to.

The truth is, our world is very messed up. You aren’t free. You aren’t independent. It doesn’t matter if you are a teacher at school, a manager in a restaurant or president of a country. There is always somebody more powerful standing above you. It doesn’t matter if your ideas and beliefs are pure. It doesn’t matter that you care and have strong feelings towards something. There is always somebody who benefits from that and for whom you are just a pawn on the chessboard. A pawn he can sell to get more money. 

The April War made me reconsider all my decisions. I thought a lot, I suffered a lot on my journey to accepting the reality, but I had to clash with it, didn’t I? The results of my inner exploration brought me to a clear conclusion: I decided not to become a president. The presidency doesn’t give you freedom of action and doesn’t give you the power to change things you don’t like.

Am I running away from my problems? I am. Am I feeling guilty for that? I do. But sometimes saving a country becomes too hard, especially if you are a young girl with very fragile feelings and a strong sense of justice, which is impossible to reach in this world. 

Creating Miracles

Since childhood, I have this weird habit of doing what I am afraid of. In this way, I overcame my fear of crossing bridges, riding a bicycle, and using elevators when I was still 5. That is how I proved myself that there was nothing in this world worth to be scared of. I have changed during the years, but my childhood habit hasn’t. I still keep trying every single thing, which seems extreme, adventurous, and somehow scary to me. There was a period in my life when I had acrophobia (an irrational fear of heights), thus, I decided to go hiking in the mountains.

Indeed, my parents were against my decision, as along with the willingness to overcome my fear I should have had adequate physical and mental preparation, be used to sleeping in tents, and get along with less than “fancy” meals (cheese, bread, and apples only for several days) during the hike. Finally, I got my parents’ approval, and this was how my “career” as a hiker started. I went hiking for at least two-three times a year. I did not cease hiking even after overcoming my phobia of heights. Hiking was challenging, fun, and strengthened me as a personality. Undoubtedly, I faced both mental and physical difficulties, started crying, and wished I was at home watching TV or reading a book.

Hiking is fun, yet dangerous!

I regretted hiking after freezing sleepless nights, exhausted evenings, or sultry afternoons when being burnt under the sun. I regretted my decision when being under the pressure of my backpack, weighing almost as much, as I did. I regretted hiking when the symptoms of my allergy showed up. I regretted hiking whenever I realized I am not cold-resistant at all. However, I continued to make this “mistake” over and over whenever having the chance. There was no doubt: I enjoyed hiking. Over time it became one of the few things I am passionate about. I often separate my life into stages: before and after hiking. Hiking made me conscious of my weaknesses and strengths. It helped me not to cease raising.

 Last summer I was hiking with some friends in the Gegham mountains. It was the first time in my life I spent three days in the mountains. I was sure it would be amusing, far from noisy people and urban mess, which I wanted to avoid so much. I wished hiking would make me feel more harmonious with myself, as during the whole summer, I worked with an extremely overloaded schedule without any leisure time to spend with family or friends. I was ready for almost everything. Almost.

The first two days of our hike passed so quickly that I do not remember anything except me collecting wildflowers and enjoying the view. However, the flaw of events changed drastically, and we had to set up the tents earlier than we planned. My shoes were not holding up, and I could hardly keep walking. I got some severe foot injuries. I felt like it was the last day I could stand on my feet. I started imagining what I could and could not do if I was not able to walk anymore. I could not dance. I could not run under the autumn rain and jump at my favorite people when seeing them after long breaks. I started crying. With these thoughts in my mind, I swallowed some painkillers and sleeping pills without water (as all my bottles were empty) and fell asleep.

 I was almost asleep but could hear some frequent and intense beats of hard rock music. There was so much drive and energy surrounding me. A few seconds later, I felt myself in a pool calmly swimming on my back.

Suddenly I heard a feminine voice crying.

“Anush, our tent is leaking. I am so afraid of thunderstorms. Please, do something!” she screamed.

I opened my eyes. Britney, my tent mate, was crying and yelling hysterically, while both our backpacks and sleeping bags were all in water. “What’s going on, jan? Where are the other guys?” I asked in a supportive voice.

“I have no clue. Their tent was next to ours. But I can’t find the tent. Maybe the storm blew the tents away?” Britney answered stressfully.

I was shocked. My feet, back, and hair was all in water. I took all of my clothes from my backpack and soaked at the edges of the tent. The roof of the tent was leaking too.  I tried to put one of my hands with a dry jacket under the hole in the roof by simultaneously cleaning the water collected at the edges of tents. Britney and I were doing our best to keep the sleeping bags as dry as possible. Both of us started coughing. And I started laughing hysterically when remembered my dream and the associations of our tent with Noah’s ark.

“God will save us,” I said. Britney was also an atheist, and we started laughing together.

When the rainy storm finally ended, I fell asleep from exhaustion immediately.

The next morning was the depiction of a gorgeous view after the flood portrayed in in my imagination as a biblical scene. I couldn’t help staring at the sky and wondering about how incredibly stunning nature is. When I came back into the stage of consciousness, I found out that the tents of others did not disappear. The guys just noticed that the location of their tents was windy and moved a few metres away from us.

The stunning view after the rain

Unfortunately, even after this incident, I did not start to believe in miracles others created for me.

But, fortunately, I realized that we create our own miracles and experience them every single minute of our existence.

The combination of miracles we create is life itself.

Table to Table: Climbing the Social Food Chain

When I was little my favorite thing in the world, besides Doritos and stickers of characters from Winx, was family gatherings. For some godforsaken reason, seeing my family was an exhilarating experience for me. I loved dressing up for it, planning my outfits in my head the night before and putting corresponding jewelry out on my desk: necklaces, bracelets, earrings and everything. I was thrilled to hear their comments about how pretty my floral dress is with that round halter-neck, and how much I’ve grown and matured. As a child you’re always in the center of your family’s attention; the adults want to know about your big, bright dreams and your future plans. But being the child also means being sent to the kids’ table.

The kids’ table phenomenon has always been a thing in my family, and its sole purpose was to keep the loud younger generation away from the sophisticated adult conversations about the corrupt government, the suffering and unfortunate zhoghovurd and the awful, awful influence of the West. As kids, my sister and I were always sent to this isolated table along with our cousins, and even though we did have fun together, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think, what are the older people talking about? Why don’t they want us there next to them? I can’t wait to be older, so I don’t miss out on all their mysterious and mature conversations.

Back when I only qualified for the kids’ table

Then one day, all of a sudden, my uncles and aunts began calling my sister over to their table (she’s three years older than me). This happened more and more frequently, until one time, she casually joined that table without them asking, like it was second nature. I didn’t know what to make of this at first. Obviously, I couldn’t blame her (not that I wanted to) because it made sense – she had grown. She qualified. She was too old for us. But, if you ask me, she was also too young to be with the adults. Gathering after gathering, she sat with them, soaking up all the drama that has apparently been present among our older family members since prior to our existence. We’d go home, and she’d tell me all about it.

One time, she had so much to say, she was a little out of breath at the end, “okay, so apparently uncle owes money to aunt’s husband and that’s why they won’t be attending his birthday. And this is not even the first time they had a conflict. Remember that time when cousin wore that super short dress to Lusine’s wedding, and uncle told her to go change? Yeah, well, then she told auntie, and auntie talked to him and told him not to boss her daughter around, and uncle was annoyed. It all basically snowballed from there.”

These petty stories happened regularly, and there came a time when I began to notice them, right as they were happening. It was difficult to see an end to this chain of passive aggressive behavior. One time, we were all at my dad’s parents’ country house, and I remember my grandma said to my uncle’s wife, “you know, the other day, I made mashed potatoes, too, and I made an impromptu decision to add some scallions and peas into the mix, and it turned out to be incredible. You should try that some time.”

We all used to have mutual friends, and we’d see each other at their birthdays and weddings, too. During one of these weddings, I remember the first thing the bride told me was, “oh sweetie, looking healthy and full! Did you quit the diet?”

There was also a constant, desperate need to compare each other’s wealth. One time, my cousin said to our other cousin, “yeah, so this summer we pretty much toured all over Europe, we went to Disneyland in Paris, then visited Brussels for a while, and the last destinations were Amsterdam and Rotterdam! So, how was Tbilisi?”

Why do we lose our sincerity as we grow older? What is it about the “real world” that makes people this way? Honesty and bluntness are considered to be childish traits. Today, if you’re an adult (whatever that may mean) you must fight in a way that wouldn’t be perceived as fighting from an objective viewpoint, you should never say what you actually mean and you have to make sure you complain about how fake everyone around you is, at least once every day. When I first started to pick up on all these patterns, it broke my heart a little. I refused to believe that this is what I had desperately wanted to be a part of. I guess things sort of worked out in my favor, because as I unwillingly improved at seeing through my family’s bullshit, we stopped hanging out so frequently. We became too busy for one another. There were other priorities. Years went by and we didn’t meet up, no one called, no one made a peep. Until my grandmother’s death on January 11th of 2019.

Grandma had cancer. We all visited her regularly, but separately. She had spent a little over a week in the hospital before she passed away. My mother was mute for an entire day after she had received the call from the hospital.

We weren’t talking to my uncle at the time, but we knew he had leukemia. His condition was becoming worse with each passing day, so my grandmother would pray for his recovery every morning and every night, whispering under her breath, “please God, give his sickness to me.” And believe it or not, God did. My uncle’s treatments began to help him, and grandma got ascites out of nowhere. There was usual amounts of fluid in her stomach, to a point where it was difficult for her to breathe. Every day she had spent in the hospital, the doctors pumped out liters of liquid from her abdomen. It’s difficult to recall much of anything from the time we found out about her death, all the way to her funeral. But the funeral I will never forget. Relatives I didn’t even know existed had shown up.

I guess it’s true what they say – death really brings people together. The first time in over three years I saw my favorite cousin was near our grandmother’s corpse. The cousin I used to like better than my own sister, because she’d let me do whatever I wanted, even if I was wrong. The cousin that could easily lift up my mood. The cousin I had no idea how to approach when I saw her standing next to grandma’s casket. I didn’t know if I should smile, give her a hug and tell her I’m happy to see her, or awkwardly nod from a distance. I did neither. I simply walked up to her and said, “Hi.” She responded with a “Hi” and after a long stare, we parted ways. It hit me in that moment that I wasn’t even happy to see her. I realized I hadn’t missed her, but rather the memories of our good times together. I missed being careless and unaware. I craved the cluelessness I knew I could never regain. Though, there is some sort of wicked beauty to that.

After everyone left the church, my family, grandpa and three of my uncles along with their families drove to grandma’s house. We were having a family gathering. I was in the kitchen helping prepare for dinner, when I heard it: the unforgettably familiar noise of chitchat from the next room; recognizable voices talking over each other, interrupting each other. The harsh, consonant-heavy pronunciation of Armenian almost made it sound like they were arguing in there. I managed to identify a few laughs among the bickering. I walked into the living room with a plate of cheese cut into tiny cubes in my hands, and noticed that not one of them had changed the fragrance they’d been using for all these years. I strained my eyes to keep the tear in my right eye from dripping onto the cheese.

After the food was set and the small talk had broken the ice, we all gathered at the tables. Without a second thought, I sat with the adults. It felt like second nature. There were many toasts made to grandma that night. “May God illuminate her soul,” they would say. If I were a kid at the time, I’d be sitting at a different table trying to figure out if eating six pickles on an empty stomach was a good idea. Instead, I spent the night trying to figure out why in the world I was so drawn to this table, why I craved to be included in these discussions. Unconsciously, the separation of the children and the adults makes these kids feel like they are not worthy to be where the adults are – where, supposedly, all the interesting conversations occur. They get used to being moved to the side and “letting the adults speak,” as my grandpa likes to say. As if the adults are more important than them, as if switching your table is an upgrade. This mentality damages children’s self-esteem, hence later in life they find it difficult to be heard. We are all human and we should all be put at the same table, no matter how long the table has to be. I wonder if at some point there will be a table for the elderly, because they’re just too boring and can’t hear you anyway. We never really stop going from table to table, huh? That night, sitting there in adult company, I caught myself thinking, what are the kids talking about over there?

50 Grams of Perceived Heroism

Photo credits to Nazi Zaim

The compulsive eagerness with which many Armenians “break the heads” of others (same as gluxd kjardem) at least verbally is a cultural legacy, which I would rather refer to as self-mockery, not honest or aware enough to acknowledge itself. Seven years of foreign influence took me to the conceptual threshold leading to misinterpretation of verbal structures locals and the Armenians of the Diaspora use. 

As irony would have it, I experienced the physical power of the phrase above way before I would comprehend its meaning. After being beaten by a group of Russian guys from my neighborhood at the age of 6 because of my ethnicity, my grandfather took responsibility of my upbringing.

The good thing is that it made me feel important since the first toast when he would drink was always to me. The bad thing is that the toast sounded like this, “If anyone ever says something you don’t like, whether an offense or a bitter word, hit them so hard that they break their heads and end up in a hospital.”

I was taking it seriously and would understand it directly. But who wouldn’t, especially if your grandfather drinks three times a day and you are exposed to a persistent repetition of a didactic instruction? At some point, he got to realize that too much of in-vain restatement might be tiresome for a kid: he started pouring 20 grams of vodka for me every evening. 

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of him. Vodka was part of his discipline. He was once told by a doctor that a little bit of vodka every morning is good for the heart. That was something he would totally love to believe, but his self-control was beyond his love for vodka: he was consuming no more than 50 grams daily. As for me, he would always ask before pouring. Well, I had my own self-discipline that didn’t yield to his own; I would always agree. For me, drinking was making me feel older, and in my mind, if I was old enough to drink, then I was strong enough to give back to the Russian squad.  

Grandpa had a strong fright and suspicion that after that incident, I would start to feel ashamed of my national background. And I can’t claim the opposite. At that point in my raw consciousness, I did; I stopped speaking Armenian.

Back to the toast, it took me a couple of months to adopt the thinking that all the Armenians living outside their country needed to break heads at some point to survive- in other words, pure self-protection. But when we moved to Armenia, the first question I had was, why would local Armenians break each other’s heads? When I finally understood why I decided to test it out on my classmate, and I had a good reason for that. 

Tigran, who was twice my height, was making fun of a girl with darker skin in the classroom during the break, which then turned into an impressive demonstration of his vernacular vocabulary beautified by a vast range of curse words. I looked around; no other guy was reacting. Just as my grandfather, I decided to take the initiative of Tigran’s upbringing. At least, that’s how I used to think. Although my actions lacked solid judgment, I envy my confidence at the age of 12, first, because I decided to beat a guy, second, I had to study with that same guy for three more years, third, his friends were around and a single slap from them would launch me to the other side of the room and fourth, I thought I could teach him something. Instead, I was taught a lesson.  

The fresh news of my footprint on Tigran’s shirt spread faster than I would get home. I was scolded by my mother. My grandfather was mysteriously silent, and I was as scared to ask his opinion about my perceived heroism as I was after the incident in Russia. Towards evening, I was called to the table and poured not the regular 20 but 50 grams. As a response to my question as to why I was getting more than usual, my grandpa blushed. This was a moment of honesty for him.

“If anyone ever says something you don’t like, whether an offense or a bitter word, hit them twice as hard as you did today,” he said.

His glance was telling more than his words eroding the possibility of my personal naivety and misunderstanding. His wet eyes were mirroring the unending depth of his own benign and inner pride, not for my “deed,” but for who I was growing into. I came to realize that there are ways of protection other than head-breaking, such as empowering toasts on a daily basis. I was confused; a strange, new principle was intruding on my value system. I was maturing with a single glance. I was maturing with 50 grams of vodka. 

The Outsider

One of the most difficult questions I come across in my daily life is, “Where are you from?” A question I cannot respond to with one word or even a sentence. My answer, always followed by a small pause, sounds more like a short biography or memoir rather than a simple location. Having been asked this question hundreds of times I have memorized this memoir by heart and it sounds approximately like this, “Well…I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, but I am ethnically Armenian. I then moved to the US for a few years, and then moved to Armenia and have lived in Yerevan ever since.” Though it is not intended to, my answer seems like an invitation for many to ask more questions, it is followed by questions about the countries I have lived in, what nation I feel I am a part of, or where I liked living most. Though this question has many layers now, once it wasn’t so difficult to answer. 

My parents had originally moved to Russia during the dark and cold years in Armenia, where diversity, even in Moscow, was simply nonexistent. During this time, they heard any and every racial slur possible. Still, by the time I was old enough to understand this, more progress in diversity had been made. Though the average Russian still believed that “Russia is for Russians”, they had adapted to seeing non-Russian faces in the capital and some big cities. Don’t get me wrong, I still faced discrimination on the daily but it wasn’t nearly as horrible as what my parents and older siblings had gone through. Thus, as the years went on I felt more and more pride for my country, my Russia. I sang the Russian anthem proudly, picked up litter on “Subbotniks” for a cleaner Russia, cheered for Russia in every sport championship and truly felt, Russian. As my patriotism grew within so did the number of acquaintances, and all was well until the day the, then innocent, question was posed, “Where are you from?” The words flew out of my mouth at supersonic speed as I told them I was Russian. “No you’re not.”

The first time I heard this answer I was shocked, I tried arguing but my arguments were shot down by my mere reflection. I wasn’t “Russian”. I didn’t look Russian. I had darker skin and both my hair and my eyes were dark brown. This confrontation by my schoolmates pushed me to confront my parents, who in turn also said that, I, in fact was not Russian. I know that Armenians reading this right now will point fingers and blame my parents for not educating me on my Armenian heritage, but that is simply not true. My parents would take us to an Armenian church every Sunday, and beyond that, I had visited Armenia every summer. Though I was greatly exposed to my Armenian heritage, these constant trips seemed of no importance to me. I grew up thinking I was Russian, but my perception of myself was shot down by one question. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Years later my parents made the decision to open a business in Los Angeles and at the age of 11 I was told that I would be moving to the land of the free. Though I had learned English at school, and had daily visits from a tutor, moving to the US was one of the most stressful times of my life. I didn’t understand a word of English. Still my lack of knowledge of the language was not nearly as bad as my lack of knowledge of the etiquette or rather than the lack of it. During my first day of school I rolled my eyes at students slouching in their chairs, while sitting crisply straight. “Home,” I explained, “you sit like bear in chair you get hit with stick. You not bear, you student.” I went to a small private school in North Hollywood, the same school Meghan Markel had gone to, and whether it was fortunate or misfortunate, not a single student was Russian or Armenian. This pushed me to adapt faster and in a few months I too felt American.  Years went on and my English sounded like my native language, but I was not accepted by me peers a one. When I would visit Russia I didn’t feel Russian but when I went back to the US I didn’t feel American. I was “that Russian girl”. I didn’t know where I belonged. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Though I was happy living with my family in the US, the day our business visa was denied was one of the most joyful days in my life. I was given a choice to move to Russia or Armenia, but having had the luxury of not being hit with a wooden stick for not sitting up, I refused hearing the words Moscow and Bella in the same sentence. I decided to move in with my grandparents in Yerevan and attend the American International school QSI. On my flight to Yerevan I was overwhelmed with excitement and pride. I was going back to my roots, and felt that I was finally going to fit in. Not to give you too much hope. A week after being in Armenia I was shamed for the way I dressed and acted, by the residence of “my” city. My shorts were too short, my voice was too loud, and I was simply not “hamest” (obedient) enough. Lost and tired of searching for acceptance I gave up. It was then I knew I was an outsider.

Now, at the age of 20 I understand that I don’t “fit in” anywhere. I don’t belong to any specific group of people. I am an outsider everywhere. I am an ethnically Armenian woman, with a Russian upbringing, and a mostly western/US mentality. I don’t need, nor do I ask of approval of any of the three nations. All three are a part of me. I describe this phenomenon as the Armenian Curse. Forcefully or willingly Armenians were spread out across the globe, and now coexist with hundreds of nations, which is both beautiful and damming. My one and only advice to those feeling the same way is to find people like you. Though it’s hard, I prose you when you will no longer feel like outsiders.