Most of my memories from being a small child are spotty, kind of like a photograph instead of a moving picture. They feel like snapshots of random, suspended moments that have somehow managed to wiggle past the point of instant recall to eventually get filed away in the drawers of my long-term memory bank. Often times, I am not reminded of these moments until the mention of a specific word, a similar visual or a related scent pulls it to the surface. This is one of those insignificant memories related to a significant, realized dream.
I remember riding in the backseat of the car heading down a seemingly never-ending highway. I was sitting on the passenger side with my Care Bears metal tray with fold out legs sitting across my lap supporting a coloring or activity book. I remember looking out the window watching sections of the tall guard wall along the road, fly by. As we neared the Madison or Milwaukee area, Mom tuned the radio dial to an “oldies” station and sang along. I knew we were getting close when we spotted the giant, yellow, #2 pencil lawn ornament (seriously, it was huge!) along our route. Only twenty minutes to go to my Great Grandmother’s house in Racine, Wisconsin.
Silly memory isn’t it? The memory could be a jumble of multiple, similar moments rolled into one. I honestly have no idea. But, when I am asked about Armenia or Racine, these are the first images that come to mind: the car ride. It was in Racine where I was exposed to Armenian culture. It was in Racine where we attended St Mesrob Armenian Apostolic Church on Sundays for a traditional service. To this day, when I smell church incense, it takes me back to those pews. It was in Racine where we took part in the annual Armenian Fest (every year-July to August). It was in Racine where the savory food flavors of dolma, lamb kabab, boereg, kringle and baklava were frequently served. It was in Racine where at such a young age (3 years old maybe?), I was invited to dream with my mom and sister of one day visiting Armenia – a piece of our heritage homeland, together. While I had the privilege of visiting Armenia in 2015 for a few days with my dear friend Dawn, the dream of visiting with family finally became reality.
My family immigrated from Beirut, Lebanon to the United States in 1924 following
WWI. During the war, under the guise of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks systematically killed 1.5 million Armenians. It is known as the first of modern-day genocides. Later, Adolph Hilter reportedly referenced the example left by the Turks when he systematically planned the deaths of so many Jews. My great grandparents repeatedly fled their way from Armenia to Lebanon. Since my great grandfather fought for the US during the war, they were able to get their papers pushed through the system a little quicker. My grandfather was only two years old when their ship landed at Ellis Island in New York. From there, they made their way to Racine, Wisconsin.
Armenia is a small country located on the eastern border of Turkey along the Caucasus Mountains. The country was much larger at one time prior to WWI. After the war, Armenia lost a large portion of land to Turkey, including Mount Ararat. It is a Christian nation surrounded by the Muslim countries of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. Because of its size and location, just the act of getting there is difficult. My mom and sister had their own, long journey through the small Middle Eastern country of Qatar in order to get to Yerevan. Coming from the United States, it makes sense that the travel time would be long. Myself on the other hand, I traveled from Tel Aviv, Israel. Here’s what I learned…during the summer, there are two-hour direct flights from Tel Aviv to Yerevan. During the other months, NO direct flights operate and travel time jumps to 24-36 hours depending on the routing available. No joke! I had a couple of long layovers in chilly Ukraine. But in the end, we all arrived tired, safe and within about eight hours of each other.
If you ever decide to visit Armenia (and I think you should), please plan to stay at the 14th Floor Hotel. It is a fabulous boutique style hotel located only a couple of blocks from Republic Square (city center). I have stayed there twice now. The accommodations are very comfortable and modern. They have a rooftop terrace which is currently under construction to add additional rooms, restaurant and bar. It overlooks the city and has a direct view of the most cherished sight of all, Mount Ararat. I will be happy to connect you with my friend, Anna Hambardzumyan, who is wonderful in customer service and helps her guests feel welcomed. Just tell her Tara Smith sent you.
Yerevan became the capital of Armenia in 1918, following WWI. It is one of the world’s “oldest continuously inhabited cities.” The city’s history goes all the way back to the 8th century. Sounds like pretty old history, right? Hardly. Mount Ararat is referenced in the Bible in the story of Noah’s Ark. Remember how God instructed crazy, old Noah to build a huge boat to hold two of every animal on the planet, then sent that flood to wipe out the world because of how wicked the people’s hearts had become and now we have rainbows? (Doesn’t sound familiar? Google Genesis 6-10). Well, in Genesis 8:3-4 it says,
“So the floodwaters gradually receded from the earth. After 150 days, exactly five months from the time the flood began, the boat came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.” Did you notice? Ararat? Mount Ararat is the backdrop for Yerevan. Armenians can historically trace their roots back to Noah’s Ark, one of the first main stories of the Bible. One of the theory’s on how Yerevan received its name is when Noah looked out from his Ark, he exclaimed, “Yerevats!”when he saw land. It means “it appeared” in Armenian. How is that for old history?
Yerevan is also known as “The Pink City” due to the pink building blocks from tuff stone. It is the center for the country’s government, industry and culture. Because Armenia is situated on an earthquake fault line and has been invaded a great number of times over the centuries, the architecture varies greatly across the city. You will see a pink tuff stone building located beside gothic style structure which will be snuggled up next to a communist gray block apartment building; varied eras of buildings still in use.
Armenia has gifted artistry like the opera, traditional dancers, painters, sculptures, etc. Take a stroll through the Vernissage Market and you will notice a wide variety of artwork from paintings and pottery to hand painted scarves and hand sewn lace for purchase. This was an important stop for us because my Great Aunt Alice is a wonderful artist. Her style very much reflects Armenian culture and actually resembles some of the artists work at the market. She has visited Armenia a few times but never lived there. I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the significance and connection for her to Armenia.
Side note: Aunt Alice will be having a gallery showing soon in Racine, Wisconsin. If you are interested in seeing and possibly purchasing her work. Connect with me. I will give you the low down. She is a hoot.
My mom, sister and I spent a good number of days in the city. We began our time with a free walking tour. If you have never taken one, I highly recommend it. Most major cities have them and I personally think the free walking tours tend to have better quality than the ones who charge. (Again, you can easily find them by using Google). Why are they better quality? These folks are working for tips, not a “wage”. Most are locals or have lived in the city for a while. They are in this business because they love their city and want you to love it. They give you information on where to find the best shopping prices, where the best “locals” restaurants are located, hidden gems of the city and interesting first hand stories. I have found them to be more interesting and humorous. Their goal is to help you understand the city, love the city and get good tips…not to only show the tourist places where they may or may not get a kick back. This walking tour was no exception, it was fantastic. “Yerevan Free Walking Tour” was well planned out. Our guide, Vako, shared great information and pointed out wonderful sights throughout the city. He hung around at the end to answer any individual questions and give recommendations. It was time well spent to get our bearings of the city right from the start. I usually tip $10 USD (or whatever the local currency is, if it is a higher exchange rate) and go up from there depending on time and quality of tour.
For me, the most important part of this whole Armenia trip was getting to see my mom and sister. It had been three months since I left home. We have talked and video chatted over the phone but it is not the same. My mom’s hugs have been a mainstay all my life and she always willing to drop whatever she is doing to give me one. My sister often knows the right words to use to encourage, support and challenge my thinking whether we are laughing or crying. I am blessed to have these ladies in my life. I often wonder why I was chosen for this family. Whatever the reason, I do not take it lightly or for granted. They are my heart.
Enjoy photos of Yerevan … more of Armenia to come.