“Splendid job! We recognize how much you love your country.” Chit.
Those were the few heartwarming words left by a Swiss-Filipina tourist on the front of a hefty envelope for a recent guide’s job well done. Encouraging as regards future professional prospects, Chit’s words also served as a reminder of my deep attachment to Armenia – a sentiment often exercised unconsciously and, on the rarest of occasions, questioned.
This is not to say that my attachment to mother Armenia was the work of the Swiss for it would be to negate the continued efforts of a very different mother – mine in particular – to preserve in me a lasting sense of patriotism despite our family’s prolonged stay abroad. But the fact remains that it took a group of elderly Swiss and a ten-day trip across the country for me to reevaluate and reassert these feelings.
Our continued interactions during the many kilometers traveled were a truly refreshing experience. Despite the significant age gap, we spoke on par about a variety of social and cultural issues affecting Armenia. These ranged from minimum wage rates and unemployment to marriage and sex to society’s perception of homosexuality, all deserving of very different reactions. But the shared open-mindedness and a lightness of being exhibited by most served as a staunch reminder of the often all-too-felt absence of these qualities amongst Armenians. Indeed, to talk to these people – most of them well above seventy, it’s worth noting – about sex for example was nothing special; another topic amongst many. But to do so with an Armenian elder or even a peer would all too often be unthinkable because of the inherent taboo surrounding such topics. A fact that did not fail to surprise the Swiss, as evidenced by their bewildered faces.
To witness such lightness of being in these septuagenarians was to be reminded of and encouraged in mine own liberal approach to a number of issues often made unnecessarily complicated in Armenia. An approach all too often attributed to my time spent abroad. A laughable mistake for anyone who truly knows me given that much of my liberal way of thought has and continues to be the merit not so much of my European upbringing as that of my Yerevan born and raised family. But for many in Armenia to accept this would imply questioning their own upbringing and so it is best the blame be put on the West.
In discussing the shortcomings of Armenians at such length – something we as Armenians never fail to do, ironically – it might seem as though I’m contradicting myself and, more importantly, the message conveyed by the title of this exposé. And yet, I truly believe that, for all our faults, we Armenians remain a truly unique peoples – nationalist fervor not intended.
For as much as Armenian society, undoubtedly oriental at heart, has opted for a borderline extreme communitarianism, arguably justifying its virtually psychotic fixation on female virginity for example, our communitarian mentality has also allowed us to bypass many of the adverse effects of that extreme individualism practiced in the West. An individualism that has already left many feeling isolated and depressed and which underlies stories such as that heard as early as yesterday in which an elderly man living in Brussels is left to celebrate Christmas alone, because his son would much rather attend a friend’s party than spend the holidays with his father. It is up to the Armenian neighbor and his family then to invite the elderly man to their home and make sure that he doesn’t stay alone – one of many positive expressions of our communitarian mentality. And for that and much more I love you Armenia.
My love of Armenia was strengthened by the repeated accounts of its rich history, expressed for example in the antiquity of its monasteries and the diversity of its cuisine, which I conveyed with great pride to my guests. I also found pride and love in the hospitality and open-heartedness of the people that welcomed us in their hotels and restaurants and offered us food and shelter, a quality the Swiss never failed to applaud. And for that and much more I love you Armenia.
The time spent with the Swiss also forced me to reevaluate my perception of self during the years spent abroad. I realized that many of the qualities that characterized me and set me apart from my peers in Geneva and later Strasbourg, including being respectful of girls and never backing out of a fight, were inherently Armenian in nature. No wonder some of these qualities were misconstrued as macho.
So I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised that it took a ten-day trip across Armenia with a group of elderly Swiss for me to reassert that one feeling I’ve always known to be there, which is: Armenia, I love you!