After having been in Armenia for a little over two weeks now, I can safely say with confidence that Armenian hospitality is unmatched. After two very interesting encounters with Armenian people outside of Yerevan, away from the familiar comforts of my host family, I have been able to see a side of Armenia that I’ve only heard stories about.
Even before I got to Armenia, I had spoken to many diasporic Armenians in the Binghamton community about what to expect once I got here. At the time, going abroad was still a distant concept to me, unfamiliar and a little scary because I had never been so far away from home. From them, I heard stories about how Armenian people in villages or smaller towns frequently invite guests into their homes to share their freshly grown apricots or sweets. Coming from NYC where I’m used to people putting up gates in front of their locked homes, this seemed like a strange concept. Being invited into someone’s home? Treating strangers to food? I could not imagine how people anywhere could do this with open arms.
That was what I thought until I experienced it firsthand for myself. The first time I experienced an Armenian feast was when I went to a smaller village outside of Yerevan with my co-workers from the organization I’m currently interning at, Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC). This wonderful organization aims to protect endangered wildlife in Armenia while working on several other projects that help smaller village communities flourish economically and educationally. The project I’m working on is within the ecotourism department, SunChild EcoTours. Ecotourism helps FPWC generate revenue for its projects as well as for people in villages who can have an alternative source of income. I chose to work within the ecotourism sector because I could see the hard but important work that my co-workers were doing every day by showing tourists the cultural, environmental, and historical treasures of Armenia.
For our trip outside of Yerevan, we were heading towards two villages in the Vayots Dzor province that were still developing as potential tourist sites in the future, Vardahovit and Gnishik. The view I got of the mountainous terrain of Armenia was breathtaking. It was a cloudy day but even then, there were rays of light coming down through the clouds, shining upon the Kingdom of Armenia. On the way there, I was also amazed by the beautiful khachkars, churches, and fortresses that all seamlessly blended into the stretching meadows of wildflowers. I was amazed that these ancient structures were allowed to exist as they had many centuries ago, in the open right next to nature. No gates, no barriers, no restrictions telling you what you could and couldn’t touch.
In Gnishik I visited the eco-lodge that SunChild EcoTours had been working on and will open to tourists in a months’ time. Construction was still underway but even then, I could see how lovely the final result would be with its extravagant floor to ceiling windows, balconies with incredible views of the forests, and quirky pumpkin gourd lights. After the tour we had lunch with the gentleman who oversaw the construction work. He set up the dining table inside his home and had us take a seat as his wife brought out dish after dish of traditional Armenian food. I was surprised that he would open his home to us in this way, expecting us to merely be on our way. It was a kind act that my stomach and I both appreciated. An Armenian feast is unique in that I sense there are certain traits it must have. First off, there is always lavash. Lavash, Armenian bread, is a staple of any Armenian meal because it pairs well with just about anything you could think of. Second, there is always alcohol. This isn’t just any alcohol however, typically it’s homemade vodka or vine that is only shared amongst family and friends. It’s not just a centerpiece at the table either, it’s a source of celebration for the gathering that results in several toasts throughout the feast. Third, there are always apricots and other assortment of fruits. It seems impossible to sit through an Armenian feast without all three of these important elements.
The second time I was treated to an Armenian feast was in the same week. I went with a friend on a weekend trip to Dilijan where we planned on hiking and sightseeing. Dilijan is a beautiful little getaway from the city, surrounded by forests and clean fresh air. We got there late the first day, so we opted for a short trail to a small cave in order to get back to our hostel before sunset. The trail was a steep climb up that would’ve been manageable if not for the rain and hail that came down on us almost immediately after we got to the cave. The climb down was made very difficult because of the wet and muddy trail created by the rain. We were both excited to have been able to hike, but we knew that there would be more to see the following day. The next day we left our hostel early in the morning, so we could hike some more. We decided to hike to Jukhtakvank, a monastery with twin churches. The trail was enjoyable, and the churches were in great condition for a little exploration. Having made it to the monastery earlier than expected, we decided to make our way to Matosavank as well, an ancient monastic complex dating back to the 13th century. We were blown away by the evident age of the complex and were mystified by the layout of the church. It looked like a sleepy castle on a hill, covered in grasses and wildflowers all over. I could not believe such an ancient structure could exist in the wilderness, allowed to age as it pleased and open to the public to see. It was an amazing sight to behold and is one of my favorite things I’ve seen in Armenia thus far.
As we headed back to the center of Dilijan after making our way down from the trail, we were flagged down by a couple of Armenian men sitting at a lunch table. They waved for us to come join them, so we did, appreciating the ability to sit, eat, and relax after a long morning hike. As soon as we met them, they were excited to ask us questions about who we were, where we came from, and why we were in Dilijan. It’s incredible how many broken words can be exchanged between a group of Armenian men, a guy from Boston, and a girl from New York with only a year’s worth of Russian speaking abilities. Despite our difficulties in communication, we were able to exchange a fair amount of information in Armenian, English, and Russian. As they prepared Armenian BBQ, they showed us pictures of their family, videos of people in the US that they knew, talked to us about their love for American pop artists, and even gave us an impromptu magic show that left us in awe and in fits of giggles at the incredibly random but wholesome situation we were in. These wonderful people not only fed us, but also took us all the way back to Yerevan with them. Saying goodbye after only a few hours together was bittersweet, as after this magnificent feast you can’t help but feel like family.
After these two encounters with Armenian people, I will never think of the word “hospitality” again without this incredible country in mind. Hospitality is an understatement for the incredible warmth and love that can be shared over the table and through the consumption of traditional food here. An Armenian feast needs the three elements I mentioned: lavash, homemade alcohol, and fruits but I would be remiss to forget to include the most crucial ingredient necessary for this feast, warm Armenian people.
By: Linda Zheng
Term: Summer 2019