Sunday, November 19, 2017
The airport was larger than I remembered. I tried to take a picture of a ‘Welcome to Armenia’ sign, but was stopped by a cop who smiled and told me it was forbidden. I laughed. Of course, it was forbidden. The old Soviet-era paranoia over photos of buildings of any kind, especially anything having to do with transportation, bridges, dams, airports, metro stations. Shame because they made them so beautiful, tempering the brutalist architecture with folk motifs and artistic renderings of national themes. The airport, redesigned after the Soviets, has no such beauty, but still, no pictures.
Outside, a hassle of taxi drivers crowded the door. I never should’ve said anything in Armenian to them. My first experience with the language, in face-to-face conversation in seven years and I’m using it to deflect taxi offers. We find the shuttle, 1,000 dram cheaper than a taxi, according to the sign, but there’s no one there. It’s Sunday. The shuttle could be parked, waiting for Monday to start working again. The windows are smeared with the oily cold of late autumn. We wait, while the taxi drivers crowd around, lighting pencil-thin cigarettes, scowling with bravado. I go inside to ask someone about the shuttle. On the way out, I pass through the taxi drivers. Haggling with them, I can’t help but to think how much I used to hate these kind of interactions because I had no cultural precedent for them. Now, I relax and enjoy the banter, trying to keep up. One verbose driver asks me if I’m a Christian. I remember this dodge: ‘You and me, we’re Christians; we need to help each other.’ I tell him America has no state religion and I think we both feel a little cheated by this answer.
The shuttle driver arrives and we chat with him, waiting for departure time. A drunk lurches from some place and sings to us. He doesn’t even attempt to speak to us in Russian, as he would’ve ten years ago, but trots out from blurry phrases in English. Our driver gives him a few kopeks and a cigarette. The air is cold and damp and gray exactly as I remember. I have a terrible craving for a cigarette and a little chalky cup of coffee. The driver starts the engine and makes us sit in the front of the 10-seat van. I warn Gina not to give offense by putting on her seatbelt, despite her automatic response. Two other tourists arrive and get in the back, balancing out the front-heavy load.
The most familiar thing is the smell: wet stone, the smell of slow, weather-induced erosion, sheep paths, trampled grasses, mud. The indoor smells waft out, carried bundled in jackets and pouring from doorways: fire and smoke, worn fabric, dried walnut husks, old slippers with the heels scuffed down. The window is up, but I can smell these things drifting up from the Hrazdan River valley and all of Armenia beyond it. The driver tells me his kids are studying English in school and asks if I can give him my email in case they have any questions. I tell him I’d love that. I try to imagine the shape of the email—which I know will never come, his kids being too technologically advanced to need to email a stranger to translate anything.
We drive past the cognac factory at the entrance of town. The shelf breaks in my closet of memories and the past comes knocking down around my ears, the old board games opening as they fall and all the little pieces scattering all over the carpet, landing at my feet, the parts of the past I’d forgotten that induce a slow building wave of nostalgia, one so intense, I can’t help but to bend down, pick up the game piece and say—to no one in particular--”I remember this!”
Republic Square is as I left it and as I’ve since seen it 100 times since on TV and in magazines, the epicenter of Armenia is unshakable, only the cars that spin through its washing-machine arc change. They are newer and there are fewer boxy Ladas in flat, primary colors. The men stepping from the cars, regardless of make or model are, however, the same. Dressed predominately in black, slapping each other on the back and speaking in that fraternal language that always seems to be raising in inflection while maintaining the same low pitch, invariably capped with ‘tsav’d tanem’ (I take your pain) as if conversation were simply the act of passing one’s pain around, collecting that of others.
We walk to the Metro. It’s now a warm autumn afternoon, still overcast but clearing up. I talk incessantly trying to clear out the thoughts before they start to pile up. The sense of nostalgia is palpable. I look for my past self on the sidewalks, in the small cafes, but I also try to avoid his lanky 25 year-old form for fear there would be a cataclysmic reaction if we were to meet. I can hear him, a few blocks over, laughing, complaining. He is so close I can hear the change jingling in his pockets, the flap of his unglued shoe. I walk with the cartoony feeling of a bandage that has been covering my eyes being slowly unwound. The operation has been a success, I only need to hold up the mirror…
“My God. Who is that?”
The Metro station is down inside a ziggurat. Beside a subterranean fountain, under pitted tufa blocks stacked like sugar cubes. I buy two orange plastic tokens like mouth-worn lozenges, and take the elevator down into a fug of celluloid and rhythmic clattering. No music is playing. There are no speakers or TVs. The few people waiting are almost silent. Holding their shopping bags, staring across the tracks. There are no ads, nothing vies for my attention. My thoughts drift in and out of the tiled pylons and I feel my individuality reasserting itself in the stillness of the moment. I feel unique, not merely part of an audience waiting for a train.
The train arrives, the doors clatter open, less like they have been automated and more like a human has wrenched a cord which is attached to them. The doors bang shut so hard they bounce open and shut again. The train bores back into the earth. The man seated across from me can’t help but to stare. Gina remarks on this when we get off two stops later.
“I know why you were so sensitive to the people here staring at you,” she says. “It’s the eyes. They have such large eyes and intense expressions.”
It’s true, but the staring doesn’t bother me now. I’ve expected it. Let me be different. Let them look at how I’ve changed since the last time I was here.
We pass through the underground gallery beneath the train station. Men stand smoking, women talk with each other or stare ahead. It is cold and damp. The air is oily from the piroshki stalls and the stone steps have been ground down into a fine dust hanging in the air. I take a deep breath and the cold I bring into my lungs, seems colder than the air around me. It’s like taking a breath at the top of a mountain. The air is cold and oxygen deprived, but aromatic, tasting of spent coffee grounds, dill and tarragon which are sold in bunches by a woman wrapped in several scarfs, looking pleased with herself.
We wandered around Yerevan for a day and a half, revisiting the familiar sights and getting over the novelty of seeing and hearing Armenian words. We ate piroshki, climbed the Cascade Monument and watched the sun set behind Ararat. I took Gina to Reza’s old house and gasped upon seeing it had become some kind of office space. North Street had seen a lot of development and the cranes stretching over the city were moving again. Entire neighborhoods had popped up and filled with tapas bars and places behind chalkboard menus, scribbled with the day’s specials in English. Young Armenians were sitting at little iron tables with baby carriages parked next to them, husband and wife both unable to keep from poking their heads in to see the baby and make funny sounds. Their wine and tapas on the table untouched, tertiary, part of the setting.
We walked up past the Argentine/Armenian school, Escuela Argentina—a place I’d told Gina about when we lived in Buenos Aires, standing on Calle Armenia. The school had achieved almost mythical proportions, inspiring the move to Argentina which had already happened so long ago. I stood in front of it, trying to feel awed, but, as always happens when visiting the past, I only felt the familiarity of it. Now that I was in Yerevan again, the time between the last visit felt like nothing at all and here I was, seven years later, but the differences fell away and standing there, I was the same person who had never been to Argentina, the memories I had of living there were anachronisms of the future.
In the afternoon the next day, we went up to catch the marshutka to Charentsavan. I got to the top of the street and found nothing waiting in the usual place. I went over to where some other marshutkas were parked and their drivers standing around. The man I asked told me that I wanted a green-colored bus that would come around on the other side of the street. I thanked him and joined a group of people waiting in the area he had indicated. To be sure, I asked one—after a year in Thailand, barely speaking Thai, it still strikes me as a glorious privilege to be able to ask questions so easily and perhaps I’m over-inclined to talk to people now.
I approached a man who shrugged at my question and another, who looked Russian, but spoke Armenian, told me I needed to go around the corner, to the bottom of the next street. As I was clarifying these directions, predictably, a taxi driver overheard me and came running. He offered his services in every way possible, but I told him I wanted to take the bus as there would be some nostalgia in it for me. The driver couldn’t appreciate this and continually offered his taxi as the only means of getting to Charentsavan. The man who looked Russian also took up the cause of convincing me a taxi would be the best way to go. I managed to fend them off without too much offense and, clarify the directions. We found the bus about twenty minutes later. A large sticker on the side proclaimed the bus was a gift from ‘China Aid.’ I grumbled that they didn’t used to have such buses, but it was roomy and seats for everyone, even after stopping to pick up extra passengers on the way out of town, into the rolling countryside.
Yerevan, unlike most capital cities, ends quickly. It is crowned with a swelling landscape which rises up, threatening to engulf the city with snow-capped hills and scrapped Soviet-era buildings. After a few agglutinated suburban towns, the road heaves over a hill and comes down in a thicket of rusted metal and walnut trees. It becomes a place of leisurely adventure. And looking from the window, I can easily imagine walking toward the horizon, stopping in the ruins of factories and at the edges of apple orchards fragrant with autumn and returning the wave of distant cowherds. Angular Soviet monuments like building blocks stand against the horizon: towers of babel no one had to knock down. In the shadows of the mountains, their impotence is obvious. The bus coasts down a hill into a roundabout, which marks the beginning of Charetsavan, at the center of which is a dry fountain. The sculpture in the middle of the fountain looks like large splash of iron water. It resembles an absurdly ambitious five-year plan goal. “If the land is dry we shall build water! Forge it from the very mountains!” The area around the fountain is empty, shivering and dusty. A Lada 4X4 caroms around the circle and drops down a road leading to the villages, throwing up dust which gradually falls away, like a curtain from the abandoned train station, three stories tall, mostly glass, an aquarium of dank yellow light. I look into the high windows, expecting to see something prehistoric swimming through the air. A single train engine, yellow and red, rolls down the tracks like something lost. It makes no noise.
The House of Culture is still there. I stand in front of it for a picture, but there are too many memories to put together and I opt to think of nothing but the cold. I take a few more pictures. The marshutka to Solak arrives, we put our bags inside and sit on the tufa steps in front of the House of Culture. A group of middle-aged woman inside the buildings are looking out the window together, I look back at them but they aren’t looking anywhere in particular. They seem to be doing it more out of habit than in order to see anything. More people arrive; the marshutka begins to fill up. We take our seats and in a few minutes, it heaves to life. The first row of seats is turned around in an amiable fashion, like in an old train carriage. A small elderly man asks where we are going. I tell him we are going to visit Zhora Mrkrtchyan. He begins asking the whole marshutka if anyone knows where Zhora Mrkrtchyan lives. I tell him I remember where he lives, but he persists. He won’t be satisfied until someone tells him I should get off at the bridge. He repeats this to me and, his duty done, he takes to handing around a bent up card for a local politician. When one woman holds the card too long, as though actually reading the information written on it, the old man makes an anxious gesture for her to continue passing it along. He watches the card move along the passengers wearily, as if in fear of someone defacing it, or not treating it with the proper respect.
Outside Charentsavan, the road is about a lane and a half in width and is like an oil slick floating on a rolling ocean of brown-green countryside. A column of wispy trees approaches the road. Even in the distance, there are no villages until Solak, which we approach tentatively, going uphill and moving slowly. We could get off at the top of the village, but I stay on the marshutka, unable to rouse myself, taking in the town from the bleary windows. We get off just before our stop when a group of women boarding with large bags threaten to hem us in. The near collision of our large packs and their bags in the doorway of the marshutka is almost chaotic, but we manage to sort what belong to whom. They board on the marshutka continues on to Hrazdan, leaving us in the light rain. We stand there, absorbing the silence of the village. A cow lows from someone’s yard and then there is nothing. We walk down from the bridge, along the train tracks to the back of the house. I feel no particular excitement or worry. I am only returning to a time and a place which, being part of me, is impossible to feel removed from.
I open the back gate and close it quickly behind me so the chickens don’t get out. We wade through the squawking chickens and come up behind the house. We haven’t told anyone we were coming and Gina is concerned that perhaps no one will be home. I tell her that there is always someone home here and that they seldom have reason to go anywhere else. Still, with her American mindset, it’s hard for her to understand how someone could always be home.
“Maybe this will be the one day they’ve gone into Yerevan.” She says. I laugh and knock on the door. “Even if they’d gone to Yerevan, someone would still be home. I don’t even know if the door can be locked here.” But no one answers. I knock again. The door is partially open. I have to knock lightly to not push it completely open. The grandmother and grandfather are most certainly around, but they don’t hear so well. I don’t want to yell, so I show Gina where we can take our packs while we wait. I figure everyone is out somewhere, probably working in the garden. It’s a mild autumn afternoon, the rain is very light and I know there are plenty of apple trees around here that need to be picked.
We drop our stuff off at the bench where I used to sit in the evenings, years ago and watch the incredible deepening of the twilight and the clarifying of the stars, strewn over the village sky as they are over a wilderness, neither pierced or distorted by any residual light. I am about to sit on the bench when I notice the neighbor, an elderly woman, almost doubled over, digging in the garden. Thinking she might know where everyone is, I go over and ask. I don’t remember her name, but she remembers mine and practically yells it out as I’m muddling through an introduction. While I’m greeting her another face pops up from the tall green of the garden: my host grandfather, Xachik, a man who is always outside either taking the sheep to pasture, doing some kind of odd errand or just enjoying the fresh air. He comes up, gives me a kiss and heartily pumps my hand exclaiming ‘Jon jan!’ in his beautiful creaky grandfather voice. I’m reeling from all the excitement, when they tell me it’s a sad time for them, my host dad has gone to the hospital in Yerevan, my host mom with him.
The rest of the visit is tinged with melancholy. The children have all grown up, they are all either in Yerevan or in the army. Only Ani has stayed behind. She has a baby boy, Mikhail, who is very smiley and likes to jump, but even he cannot entirely alleviate the somber air in the house. My host grandmother hasn’t been able to walk for six years and when I go in to see her she starts to cry. I take her hand in lean in toward her, but I’m afraid of hurting her and I end up bowing before her and her pain like I’m awaiting some kind of benediction. The dried fruit I brought from Thailand and the halva from Dubai, are opened and eaten, but without the joy and conversation I’d been hoping for. We have coffee and they tell me about the woes that have befallen their family. Neighbors come over and affirm these things. Only my host grandfather maintains his smile. As he ages, he seems to be moving back in history. He’s got an old patchwork vest on and a rounded felt cap not dissimilar to a fez. Despite the mournful air of the room, I can’t help grinning at him. He grins back.
Ani, even with the baby, makes my favorite dish and is continually offering coffee. After our third cup, I take Gina outside to show her the village that, for a summer, was the limits of the known universe for me. I take her to the rock where I read and waited and watched the scenes of pastoral life. We go to the edge of the valley where I found the trail for the monastery at the top of the low mountain range. I’d like to walk the tracks to Charetsavan or the road to Hrazdan as I did so often that summer, but there’s still rain in the wind and it’s getting dark. We go back to the house, eat some more and go to sleep early under a mound of comforters.
I wake up early in the morning, buried under the blankets from which it is very difficult to extract myself and enter the freezing room. Eventually, I force myself out and go downstairs for breakfast. Gina and I ramble around the village a little more and I show her a few more important places. There: the school where I had my daily Armenian class. Here: The house where the crippled man lived who could be seen roaming the streets and always invited me in for coffee. This store: where I used to stop to buy candy to bring to my host family. This house: another volunteer named Danny who left after three months for grad school and his boyfriend. The House of Culture: An artist lived in the upper galleries, his paintings strewn all over. Together we examine the summer preserved in amber when I first arrived in Armenia.
We go back to the house, get our things together and have one last cup of coffee. I say my goodbyes, shaking hands and awkwardly bowing before each of these people who has done so much for me just by keeping me in their memory and welcoming me back to their home after a seven-year absence.
I get on the wrong marshutka out of town. I’m too preoccupied thinking about those seven years. All the places I’ve been, all the languages I’ve heard, the things I’ve done, when, all along, this village was here, arching over those intermittent years, from past to future to present. Who knows who I’ll be when I make it back again, I think to myself and the marshutka bumps down the road in the direction of Hrazdan which is the wrong way, but still a destination.
Back in Yerevan, I begin to make my way out to the suburban town of Avan where my host dad Zhora is in the hospital. I cross the street in front of the train station and ask the first friendly-looking guy I see if he knows how to get to Avan. The man I ask is just past middle-age and wears a typical old man hat and jacket to keep the chill off. He happily tells me that he is also going to Avan and that we should go together. We stand together waiting for the bus. I rock back and forth on my feet, partially out of impatience, partially for something to do. My companion tells me that he used to work as a minero in Nicaragua. It takes me a few minutes to find the Spanish in my mind to ask him a few questions. He seems to understand, but answers in Armenian, utterly confusing me and making Spanish impossible and I switch back to Armenian. If I had stood across the street and glanced up at this anonymous group of people waiting for the bus in Yerevan, I never would’ve guessed that, among them, there was a minero who had worked in Central America.
I look out the window, as the bus climbs out of Yerevan again, into the suburban areas that surround it, which look almost the same as the city with clean tufa lines and raised even sidewalks. There are no shepherds and no ambling cows; the mountains that rise above the buildings are empty, dotted with plastic bags here and there.
The crowded bus empties all at once and my companion makes for the door. I jump up after him and tap him on the shoulder, asking ‘should I get off here?’ Instead of a reply, he holds up a steady finger. Signaling me to wait. Someone else is asking him directions. He must have one of those faces people instinctively trust. I wonder how that worked for him as a minero in Nicaragua. Does such a face benefit a man in an unknown place? Back in Solak, I had felt honored when a car pulled over and the driver asked “ayc gughits es?” ‘Are you from this village?’ If I remembered the place a little better, I would’ve told him yes. Maybe I, too have such a face.
The bus is nearly empty and my trustworthy companion signals me to get off with him. He pays my fare, but I didn’t catch what he said as I passed the driver and I paid again. When I get off the bus, he scowls. “Why did you pay again?” I’ve soured his act of hospitality. I apologize that I didn’t hear. He scowls for a minute as we cross the street together, but he’s not the type to hold a grudge and by the time we’ve reached the opposite sidewalk, he’s back to talking to me, asking me which hospital I’m going to again. I tell him. He stops a guy on the sidewalk who doesn’t know and then he goes inside and asks a shopkeeper. I wait on the sidewalk. When he comes back out, he tells me I should just walk down the road, stay to the left and it’ll be the red building. I thank him and walk down the street which, like most Armenian streets at the edge of town, gradually starts climbing into the mountains. At the first intersection I come to, I’m tempted to continue to follow the road, but I stop at a tire repair shop and ask a man washing a car about the hospital, he points out the building, the red building, he says and points out what is, to me, a brown building, slightly reddish at best.
The street is empty save for a few large homes being rapidly built. In front of one construction site, a man in track pants in bent over double heaving tufa blocks. As he is alone, he looks more like someone who came down to heave blocks around than someone doing any work. There is no equipment or tools to be seen. At the edge off the construction, just before the hospital, there is a bit of empty field, making the hospital feel a bit like some kind of feudal castle, set above and apart from the rest of the rabble. The place has no clear entrance. I enter the courtyard and find a bunch of service doors. Directly behind many of these doors there are piles of dusty chairs and desks. It is obvious these doors haven’t been opened in a long time. I see someone exit one door and I go in. There is a stone foyer and a large staircase which separates into wings. I go up the stairs and find the scene repeated on the second floor but with a hallway on either side. There are no signs and the white paint on the walls is flaking off and sticking to the spiderwebs crossing it here and there. A few of these paint-chip and spiderweb mobiles hang before the windows and turn idly, catching dusty rays of the sun. I can hear footsteps, but it’s impossible to tell where they are coming from. I return the way I came in, back to the courtyard and call Zhora on the phone. I try to explain where I am, but there’s no clear landmark. I see a gazebo, a spindly thing so common of the Soviet Era. One of these things that only has a Russian name, so odd in that when there’s a group of kids playing on one or some old guys slapping nardi pieces down they seem so full of life, but when they’re empty, they seem so utterly abandoned. I tell Zhora, I’m next to the gazebo. He repeats the word a few times to himself, as if trying to remember what it means. I hear him ask his wife where the gazebo is. Finally, he tells me he’ll find me. I hang up and wait but the empty gazebo overgrown with dead grapevines. A few minutes go by, I look up and see Zhora waving to me from a window in a tubular building that houses a staircase. I run to the bottom of it, but it’s another exit blocked by dusty chairs and I can’t figure out how I could possible access it. I come back around and Zhora is waiving me toward a sort of bridge connection the stairwell to the rest of the building. It’s like trying to communicate with someone across that MC Esher drawing with all the stairs. I climb the same stairs I went up earlier and pass a woman who’s muttering directions to herself, vainly trying to recall where she’s supposed to go. Zhora rounds the corner and the woman and I are standing next to each other, he subdues his expression to not frighten the woman, waits until she passes and then grabs me up in an embrace, with a kiss on the cheek. After Argentina and Paraguay, I keep trying to kiss everyone on the opposite cheek, but I always find myself kissing air as the person backs up to get a look at me. Their first look being strangely of a kid kissing the air. Zhora takes me to his room.
The room and the hallway it’s in are much more encouraging. There are no paintflaked spiderwebs here and the door frames are all made of new white plastic. Inside, I’m not surprised to find they’ve brought a portable coffeemaker and there are dishes of candy set out in expectation of guests. I’m not in the hospital room five minutes before I’ve got a cup of coffee in hand with a saucer full of candy and walnuts. We talk for a few minutes and a man enters the room, greets everyone and invites us over to his hospital room for lunch. The family politely refuses, but as a guest, I’m entreated to go and I find myself sitting with a group of people, telling them what I’m doing in Armenia while cramming lavash and cucumbers into my mouth. The hospital functions like the country in miniature and I’m half-expecting someone to ask me if I’ve visited some beautiful place in the hospital yet and offer to drive me.
When I return from the neighbors’ hospitality, I’m happy to see that Anahit, my host family’s youngest daughter has come to join us. Despite the nurse coming in and out of the room, filling the iv and asking questions, we have a nice time talking. Zhora doesn’t seem to be in too much discomfort, although I occasionally catch him grimacing which he immediately pulls into a smile. We talk about the old times and everyone laughs when I tell the story of how Naira, my host mom, used to bring me a huge glass of milk every morning, thinking that I would like it and how I used to drink it, thinking she would like it. Both of us doing this absurd thing to please each other.
In the late afternoon, the nurse is coming in more frequently and asking more questions, which I take as a sign that perhaps I should leave. The family thanks me for coming and Naira walks me to an elevator, which is wrapped with stairs and set in another tower of the hospital where the floor is dusty and littered with cigarette butts. Hospitable to the end, she reaches in the elevator and presses the ground floor button for me. I barely manage to say ‘thank you’ before the doors slam shut and I’m lowered to the ground level. I step out of the elevator, through a propped open door and I’m back outside. The sun is setting behind the empty mountains surrounding the city and the cadence of construction work continues from the building sites. I walk back down the empty street, toward the unfinished buildings into the gray evening. I stand at the bus stop waiting, a potential minero from Nicaragua waits next to me and together we board the quiet evening bus.
We went down to Karabakh and, after an afternoon walking around the capital of Stepanakert, we took a bus up the mountain to the old Caucasus capital of Shushi (or Shusha, depending on who you ask) in the late afternoon. With the light fading, we went down to the lower part of town which was comprised mainly of blackberry brambles and crumbling mosques. The glazed bricks were littered all over the yard and the gate in the fence was frozen wide open with yellow tufts of grass. The niche in the brick wall led up a tiny curving staircase, like something from a doll house, almost too small to be practical. In places, the 100 year-old stairs gave crumbled under your feet and you had to hold onto the walls to keep from sliding back into the dusty darkness below. At every full revolution of the stairs, a small aperture let in just enough light to illuminate my hands reaching out for the next handhold before I pulled myself into the next stage of darkness. After seven or eight revolutions a weak, tea-colored light fell down the stairs, lighting the tops, then the vertical faces and finally even the recesses in the brick walls. The minaret opened, the railing and top were missing and the stairs opened like a trap door on a flat platform surmounted by a round brick spire which should’ve held the roof. The mosque’s other, complete minaret was just down the mountain from our view and beneath that thickets of blackberry and rosehip, small mountain pines, broken tiles and dust so thick it lay piled like smoke around the base of the building. The moon was rising, the color of a begrimed pumpkin seed, white streaked with dull orange, from the valley. Going down was harder, we slid in the dust and gripped at it hard enough to get it in under our fingernails. We came out at the base chalked, looking like tragic figures emerging from a kiln. We stood under the minaret, slapped the dust from each other and admired the brambles growing through the building, the cracked slabs of the marble floor. It was getting too dark to see well. We climbed back up through the cold fog in the muddy lanes. Children called ‘hello’ to us in a friendly way and we joined the quiet procession of evening walkers shuffling bags up the hill, back into town where a few old Ladas slid between the buildings without their engines on, crumpling the pebbles under their tires. Exhibitions of windows, hanging in small and large wooden frames, reflecting the moon, the leaf fires and the ruins or the lower town were cast among the scene the like little doors to be opened on a nativity calendar.
We came down a lane between walls of packed mud to a large, balconied house with tin-snipped motifs blazing from its eaves like still flames. The museum was closed, but a woman working in the adjoining garden opened a door and produced a jailer’s set of keys and let us in to hear the cackle the broken pots, to tread on the creaky wooden floor in respectful silence, to see the duduks and the pictures of choral children standing in front of a school in the old Armenian quarter and, as an overture, a warm room of blood-red rugs, a sewing machine and a picture of sadly smiling woman and her Romanian diploma. The gardening woman followed as a curator. She had seemed annoyed until I asked if I could turn on a light. Perhaps the warmth of the light on the wall carpets induced her to be more personable. I asked about the Romanian woman and the sewing machine. Apparently, she’d donated it and others like it for the production of Karabakh fabrics. The woman offered comments about each piece we stopped in front of. She said the well-carpeted room was indicative of how the rich had lived in Shushi. I asked if there were still people who lived this way in Shushi and she spat out an indicative ‘of course’ to which she added ‘we’ve got all types here, but there are lots of rich people.’ I thanked her and she went back down to the garden, bringing a few plastic bags to her husband who was still in the garden digging at something. By this time, it was nearly dark and the only light going back down the mud lane seemed to come from the reflection of the moon in the small panes of glass, repeating across the house fronts like an animation sequence showing the same picture over and over with the slightest difference in the height of the moon.
We took the last bus back down the mountain to the capital. In the evening, it was one of those valleys of light when seen from above which we drowsily made our way down into. Despite how full the bus was, the passengers were all silent, as if awed by the spectacle of light. We arrived at the bus station and walked down to the ‘We Are Our Mountains’ Monument depicting the faces of an old Armenian couple in angular tufa stone. The faces, surrounded by darkness as they were, recalled the etchings on Armenian tombstones where the faces of elderly women, dressed in black, hooded with headbands of dangling coins, regard passersby from dark marble slabs. The land beyond the monument and the road that led up to and away from it was scavenged like the fallow land surrounding an airport, blocks of intentional emptiness laced together with a single, dimly illuminated sidewalk. Cars roared by in the darkness and music sounded faintly from a distant outdoor party.
We spent the morning in Stepanakert and in the afternoon we returned to Shushi and checked into an empty hotel just behind the cathedral. We put our things down in the massive room and went off to find the start of the Janapar—the Armenian word for road or way they use to designate the hiking trail that wends through the lower half of Karabakh.
We walked back through the lower part of town, through the ruins tangled in brush piles and thorns, but during the day, it gave the impression of a village grazing ground. Cowbells tinkled among the broken stones and the sound of grass being ripped and thoroughly chewed almost rhythmically was constant. A man stopped us, waving his hand in a gesture signifying ‘where are you going?’ We asked for directions. ‘the walking path to the next village’ wasn’t explicit enough, so I had to recall the specific village we were walking toward, some with ‘kar’. We finally reached an understanding and he waved us down a muddy path to the coarse fanfare of several chained sheepdogs. After a large house and a crumbled wall, a few gnarled apple trees marked the end of the town. Their bark was wet; their yellow leaves had fallen at the trunk like spilled paint, but their upper branches were still weighed down with unspoiled fruit. As we walked, we kicked up the soft, brown, vinegary apples that had fallen from their beds of wet leaves. The path led us around an outcropping of rock, where a sheep had been sheared recently and curls of damp wool had been trampled into the mud. The field rolled out from under our feet, precipitating into a rocky river valley which was covered with yellow and red leaves.
We made our way down the valley, past the ruins of a village that was abandoned in Soviet times as no road could be built to reach it. We stepped sideways down a switchbacked path and stopped to poke our heads into a home, grass-covered roof still intact, halfway buried in the mountain. The last house, also partially buried, was sunk into the spongy black earth on the banks of the Karkar River. A bridge spanned the river, entirely covered in soil and weeds, looking so much like a natural formation it was impossible not to take it for granted and cross the river as though nature had decreed it.
The path snagged on the banks of the river and, alternately, careened up the valley childishly, rushing up and tumbling back down for no reason beyond variation. The valley bubbled and broke open in a mossy cave that resembled an old pumpkin stove in by inept jack o’ lantern carvings. Gray limestone steps clustered around the mouth of the cave each of them cupping a small, clear pool of water. An Armenian couple passed us, carefully walking along the river, eschewing the slippery path for the stepping stones of large river rocks, the man, helping the woman along with a serious look on his face, stopping occasionally to arrange the path to his liking, moving a stone or kicking one out of the way. Water dripped over the mouth of the cave, but inside, I thought it might be dry and ran through the beaded curtain of dripping moss. Inside, the cave was stalactited with mineral villi dribbling water like a broken shower head. It was an odd sensation to be so thoroughly inside something and still feel a cold rain continuously falling. I moved into the back of the cave, seeking a drier place, but it was raining everywhere.
We walked the length of the valley before turning around in the late afternoon. When we came up from the river a particular, Goblin-Market, countryside dusk was rising up from the dim rushing waters to the tinkling pastures at the top of the valley. Past the gnarled apple trees, the town abruptly began again with splashes and small puddles of animal blood. The first puddle was collected, intentionally, at the bottom of a rusted metal sheet, slightly curled at one end and, further up, the blood had pooled on the packed black earth, very little had soaked into the ground and even in the faint light it was possible to discern an opaque blood, like nail polish, and a reddish, clear fluid at the edges of the puddles like the albumin around a yoke.
“Something was just killed here,” Gina said. I nodded. She shook her head and jogged up the path, away from the blood “don’t let me smell it!” she called to the air as she ran off. I stopped to watch the blood, slowly descending the path, threading red between the stones and then ran to catch up with Gina who had already gained the main street leading up to the center of town where the lights in the shops and homes gleamed like candles guttering before an icon.
We spent a night in Goris, walking up to the caves surrounding the town and sitting on shepherd’s promontories. The market had changed quite a bit and new hotels had popped up all over town, many of them with a boutique look uncommon even in Yerevan. In the evening, coming down from the caves, we were stopped by a group of boys playing soccer in the street. They asked us to play with them, so we did, admittedly very badly. Gina mostly stood around and laughed and I lunged after the ball any time it came within 20 feet of me, not ashamed to use my superior length to my advantage. Fouls were constantly called and the opposing team got numerous penalty kicks. We were beaten 9-1 and after slipping on the loose gravel, I ended the game with blood dripping down my hand. Which the boys found very interesting.
After the game, we were seen back to our room by two of the more well-behaved boys. The sun was setting, but it had been a warm day and the weather was still nice. The boys asked questions as we walked. Mostly, they seemed to be interested in knowing when we would come back, but we talked a little about America and other countries. When one boy’s questions were exhausted, he said good bye and turned home, leaving us with one companion who didn’t seem in a hurry to be anywhere, although the day was ending and the shadows lengthening in the street. We walked back behind an apartment building where a murmuring funeral wake was being held. It was awkward walking through the groups huddled in black around a coffin lid propped against the doorjamb. I was still sweating from the exertions of the game and the autumn weather was so beautiful, it was hard not to smile. I bowed my head and feigned a neutral expression. We weren’t saying anything, but our accompanying little boy, continually looked back and made a ‘shush’ gesture to us, holding a stern finger over his lips and indicating the mourners. Soon after we passed the mourners, our companion met another boy, maybe a year or two older and called out excitedly when he saw him. He barely had time to yell ‘bye’ in our direction before running off with his friend. We reached our room by the market a few minutes later, but decided we weren’t ready to turn in after all the excitement of the game. I went in, cleaned off my hand and we went back out, to walk around in the dark.
The next morning, we went out to the bus stop around nine and were told there were no marshutkas heading toward Yerevan until 4 pm. After a lengthy haggling with a group of taxi drivers that must’ve been 40 strong, I found a man, already on his way to Yerevan who agreed to take us for a reasonable price. We got in the car and I tried to make small talk, but every question was buffeted by a single-word answer or a shrug of the shoulders. I took the hint and sat back in my seat.
The men in the front talked among themselves a lot, I couldn’t catch most of what they said, but I gathered they were going to Yerevan to try to meet with a lot of different people, Both of their phones were constantly ringing. I watched the green hills and the gray-roofed villages scroll past the windows. When we had come just a few days prior, the Vorotan Pass had been completely white with snow, already most of it had melted and it had receded to the tops of the highest peaks. Fields stretched out from the road in either direction, gradually piling into mountains. Distant villages clustered under the shadow of these mountains, surrounded by yellow grasses and lumpy mattress clouds. Shepherds walked parallel to the road, canes raised, following errant cattle and yelling ‘Huush!’ We passed the village of Saravan which is positioned like a fortress in the chicken-scratched snows near the top of the pass. A group of tatiks sat talking near the road and watched our marshutka pass, searching the windows for good news. We came down into Vyots Dzor Marz, like a rock kicked loose from a mountain bouncing down to the river. On the switchbacking road, a truck and a small car were parked on either side of the road, making it necessary to drive between them and reducing the road to a single lane. The wheelwells of the truck were sprayed with broken taillight glass and the car had a spiderwebbed windshield brushed with heavy streaks of blood like it had been painted on. The autumn colors deepened as we descended toward Vayk and the familiar towns of the valley. The speakers played Russian chanson music with patriotic Armenian themes. I remember one song rhymed ‘геноцид’ with ‘федаины.’ (‘genocide’ and ‘[Karabakh] freedom fighter’)
We crested the last hill and pulled up to the Yeghegnadzor marshutka stop on the highway. We thanked our drivers and, shaking hands, I noticed the rising sun tattoo on the back of our driver’s hand, a Russian prison motif, each ray on the sun indicating a conviction and sentence. Despite the driver’s previous taciturnity, he wished us a good trip and pumped my hand warmly when we said goodbye.
We walked back into the town, past my old apartment to the crest behind the cemetery where I thought I’d never return: a place I used to go for refuge, where I’d watch the sunset and think of life beyond the mountains. Since 2010, I’ve often thought of this place, above the town of Yeghegnadzor. In all the times I went to this field overhanging the valley below, I never met another person. If I had a personal piece of Armenia, it was here. This small bit of pasture land came to symbolize the entire country after I left. When I thought Armenia in the abstract, I thought about this place. So, although we’d been in the country for a week and had seen many symbolic things, for me, we hadn’t been anywhere until we’d visited the field behind the Yeghegnadzor cemetery which hangs over the mountains like a green rug drying on a rock, overlooking the village of Getap. We climbed up the steep road of dried and deeply rutted mud and I felt elated. Finally, after all the wandering, I had made it back to this beautiful place I once called home—which at times, seemed to have been fabricated or at least heartily embellished. We climbed up over the crest, looked down into the valley below, and I knew I hadn’t made a single thing up, it really had been sublimely beautiful, even with the husks of old Lada cars pushed down into the ravine and a sluice of trash which seemed to pour out of the town and down the hill. It was my place, rock strewn, yellow grass tangled, dew-damp and it was still early summer, the time when, after two years of living in Armenia, I was finally able to love it. When I walked down the goat paths, sighing at the quiet of the small streams cut deep into the mountains; when I sat on the benches in the middle of the town, greeting everyone who came by, when I spent my days between the homes of friends and the intervening mountains. In short, the time when I belonged to something, when I ceased to merely be passing through, or taking a vacation. It took two years, but eventually it happened and now, standing at the top of Yeghegnadzor, I’d come back to this idealized place to find that time and distance had done nothing to exaggerate the memory. It was just as beautiful and primary as I’d remembered it. I raised my hand up to the horizon and said to Gina ‘this is it; this is Armenia to me’ and we went down to walk among the yellow grasses and strangely faceted rocks to examine the place where everything seemed to start over.
Lusine, my old Armenian language tutor, wasn’t at home, so we walked back down Momik street, past the empty university to Hayarpi’s apartment. We kicked off our muddy shoes in the small foyer, crowed with boxes overflowing with apples—“we trade them, kilo for kilo, for potatoes,” she told me. The small apartment was also full of apples and smelled like an autumn afternoon when the cold north wind brings the sweet smell of apples and dry leaves out of the valleys and into your clothes and air. On such a day, when a visitor comes into the house, you rush up to embrace them and smell the world in their clothes and hair. We rushed in to embrace the familiar apartment and sat among the crates of apples, leaves and twigs as though we were still outside.
Together, we made spaghetti. I’d forgotten how here the noodles are sautéed first to toughen them up, but, although we skipped this vital step, things turned out alright and we each had a great dish of pasta with homemade peach juice and lavash bread to mop up any remaining sauce. After we’d eaten our fill and talked about all kinds of things, my phone rang. I said ‘hello’ and the voice at the other end asked if I knew who was speaking. I admitted I didn’t. “This is Sose.” The last time I’d talked to Sose Sargisyan, he’d been seven or eight years old, so I couldn’t be expected to know his voice as he was now sixteen and it was completely different. When I knew Sose, he was a pale, dark eyed, small toothed kid I used to play with after meeting him and his sisters in an empty lot at the foot of the mountains where scrapped buses were stored. Sose was a kind kid who smiled easily and accepted my linguistic limitations as completely natural in the way some kids do. I didn’t meet him until my second year in Armenia and though I went quite a few times to visit him and his family, I didn’t expect them to remember me, but when I’d gone to their home a few days earlier, arms opened, faces lit up and everyone seemed genuinely glad to see me. Sose hadn’t been at home, but I left my number so he could call.
Still on the phone, I told Sose we be leaving soon and that I’d meet him at the top of the stairs, beneath the World War II monument. We could walk back across town together. We thanked Hayarpi and offered to do the dishes although we knew she’d refuse. We stepped out of the apple-smelling autumn apartment into a rainy night. I called Sose and told him to go home. I didn’t want him to get wet walking in the rain. Like most teenage boys, I knew he didn’t carry an umbrella with him, despite how threatening the skies might look. He refused, told me he’d be fine and while I was still on the phone with him, I came to the top of the stairs and saw someone in the dark, rainy distance, talking on a phone. I hung up and said to the figure “I’m already here.” He hung up and came across the street in the dark. Until I reached out to him, I had no idea what to expect from this teenager I had known as a little boy. We stood there embracing on the street, in the rain and even after we moved apart, I couldn’t take my hand from his shoulder and we walked, like ordinary Armenian friends, arm-in-arm, down the street talking of the most unimportant things as you tend to do in such incredible situations. When we came to a fork in the road, I urged him to go back home, remembering how he was often sick as a kid. We embraced again and he walked off, leaving me with an intense joy I didn’t know what to do with. “Ok,” I thought. “Now I can go.” When I lived in Armenia, I often lamented that I had no close male friends. I hadn’t realized that I had made one, but that he just hadn’t grown up yet.
I stood in the street for a moment and watched Sose go. The rain came down harder through the unlit night and we stumbled back to our room over the uneven roads and under the spindly mulberry trees as though the last seven years had never happened.
Sunday, October 22, 2017
It’s late morning on a Bangkok Saturday. People are out shopping, but the rush is out of the atmosphere. The air is torpid with weekend and rain. The BTS trains are only about half full. One year since the king’s death and everyone is in black; whole train cars, mothers, children, teenagers all in black, but its Saturday, so some of them have gotten creative with it. A girl with a pageboy is wearing black gladiator sandals that tie up to her knees, a few women wear sheer black scarves, spilling over their shoulders, falling over their hair; the guys are mostly in polos with the Thai numeral for nine: the number for the king.
Under the station, impervious to the impending rain, the symbol-shaped woks are sitting on gas-ring braziers, cupping opaque oil, shivering with bubbles. There are piles of spring rolls and fried tofu next to them and yellow and red paper flags for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The sidewalk tiles are loose and clatter with under the weight of pedestrians walking, pushing strollers, jogging, teetering.
A foggy music is playing somewhere. The sky is headache gray and piling up like comforters kicked to the foot of a bed. Motorcycles thrum by and focus my attention for a moment before it spills back over the scene, utterly bored.
I’ve got too much stuff awkwardly crammed in my pockets, as I often do when traveling. My cellphone snags on my passport as I take it from my pocket. A few coins fall out, catching on the lip of the phone’s protective case. I press the button, it’s already 10:40. I go in to the bookstore and put my books on the counter. I’m supposed to be in here to sell only, but while they’re totaling my buy-back price, I find a book and take it to the counter. I’m half-way through through a Dostoevsky. They always start to depress me a few hundred pages in when the protagonist’s mortal defense starts to crumble, pulled down by the unnecessarily, but implacably evil world.
I use my credit to buy the book and a coffee and still get about 3 dollars back. I sit at the table in the front of the store. It starts raining hard outside. I look up from the book and watch the rain.
When I was younger and very awkward with girls, my favorite place for a date was in the bookstore. The books gave me something serious to talk about. We could go to a bar and I’d flounder for conversation. If we went to the movies, I’d bitch through every cliché, rolling my eyes enough to look like a cartoon who’d just gotten off a roller coaster. In most restaurants, I’d only drink coffee and—before the ban in 2010—smoke like a chimney. I wasn’t really pleasant to be with anywhere, but, in bookstores, I felt I was at least tolerable.
I was always trying to get my dates--if you could call them that-- to read Calvino. It seemed like I never met anyone who’d read him. I’d wave If on a Winter’s Night...around and complain that it was better than Marquez, which, was only true because it didn’t get the credit Marquez did. I used to go nuts if I met anyone who liked Confederacy of the Dunces who hadn’t read the Quixote. “Who cares which translation it is?” I’d whisper-shout. “I’ll buy it for you now if you promise to stop reading whatever you’re reading now and start this.” And I’d jab at the book with my index finger like an itinerant preacher with his bible. Sometimes, I’d switch topics and take my ire out on the bookstore. “What? Only one Iris Murdoch? The hell kinda’ place is this?”
I felt confident without a drink in my hand. I didn’t even have to smoke. I’d pile my dates up with White Noises and Remains of the Days and, best of all, it was like a glimpse into the future. If they were amused or even tolerant of my bibliophile rants, they won me over. They didn’t even need to buy a book. No one I met had much money back then. But maybe they’d write a title down to check out at the library. Probably very few of these books ever even got checked out, but it was the patience that impressed me, that and the ability to spend an hour or two in a store buying nothing, just talking, or, for my dates, just listening.
A lot of the bookstores are gone now. Powell’s is still in Portland, but that place swallows me. I could never curate it. I was too amazed to do much more then gasp and plop down on the floor with a stack of books. The other independent bookstores have given over to a lot of what they used to call ‘sidelines’ which is all the crap which used to be secondary in bookstores—you know, Edgar Allen Poe action figures. ‘Emily Dickinson is my homegirl!’ t-shirts. Gifts non-readers buy for readers. These have gradually taken over as I guess most readers go online where the variety is.
Overseas, there are a few used bookstores left. In large cities like Bangkok, enough reading material has accumulated over the years to lead to some interesting collections and generally the prices at these places are reasonable enough. These places often serve as bastions of the more eccentric expats—the ones who’ve avoided the bars and spend their retirement looking through boxes of cast-off paperbacks with brittle yellow pages, trying to remember if they’re read Fathers and Sons before. Mostly they talk to whoever is at the counter.
I’m finishing my coffee, watching the greasy Bangkok rain, wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of the day before my flight home when the bell above the door rings and a guy comes in with a girl. Their voices carry above the rain, the espresso maker and the old soul music set to a perfect background level. “Oh, shit it’s gone!” The guys says. “Oh well. We’ll have to find something else.” The girl is speaking much quieter. I can’t hear her responses to his outbursts. From the corner of my eye, I see him grab a book. “This? This is Dan Fucking Brown! Yes, that Dan Brown! Well, Angels and Demons would be the place to start, but The Da Vinci Code is, well, the DA VINCI CODE." He says this like a cue for a high-five. "What’s it about? You know, Catholics mostly and, uh monks.”
My focus is still on the window, but I can’t hear the rain. I can’t even see it anymore, I can see only Tom Hanks, with a flashlight, in a tunnel, looking for, ‘uh, monks.’ I’m biting my tongue to keep from laughing when the guy suddenly yells out “David Baldacci” and goes tromping (there’s no other word for it—like through the pumpkin patch) to the other end of the bookcase. “He’s fucking brilliant! You don’t know Baldacci?” Alright, we’re gonna’ fix that.” but before the guy can say anything about Baldacci’s oeuvre he’s tromping off again, groping for another book, like someone pulling a box of cereal off the shelf at a supermarket. “Hey, what about Janet Evanovitch she writes these murder stories—scare the hell outta’ you! Like, you never know who’s going to die...” The girl says something in response to which he announces, “oh no, that’s someone else!”
The couple bounds to the back of the store and up the stairs to ‘mystery’ and ‘sci-fi’ and all I can think is that it was like watching some terrible spoof of me at my most earnest, years earlier. I try to reconcile myself to what I’ve just heard, but I keep thinking about his synopsis of Da Vinci code: ‘Catholics and, uh, monks,’ and I can’t avoid the conclusion that this guy is a fraud and this is some kind of ‘ways to pick up girls’ technique.’ As upsetting as it is to see this grotesque performance, it takes me back, for a moment, to a series of bookstores, back when I used to sleep in my clothes and never wash my hair, when I worked in a bookstore and spent most of my free time in the university library or the diner down the street.
I knew nothing of the world then, but earnestly believed books could furnish any information I needed. Maps did not impress me then; they weren't tangible the way stories were. If I could read about places, I didn't need to visit them.
I knew nothing of the world then, but earnestly believed books could furnish any information I needed. Maps did not impress me then; they weren't tangible the way stories were. If I could read about places, I didn't need to visit them.
I finish my coffee, watching the rain, on the other side of the world from my memories, thinking of the snow, the cafes, the cigarettes, the watery American coffee I drank by the pot. I begin to feel thankful to the bastard and his Dan Brown for stirring up the memories which sometimes, I feel I am on the precipice of giving up forever.
When the couple comes back downstairs, the guy’s expostulating with the girl about movie version of the Da Vinci Code. And what’s this? The girl’s got a bag. She’s actually bought something. I never got anyone to buy anything!
Not long after the couple leaves, the rain is pulled back like a shower curtain, still flinging a few wild drops here and there, but ceasing as abruptly as it started. I leave the bookstore. The sky is still gray like a dead tooth and there’s nothing but malls all up and down the street. I go over to a 7-11, buy a snack and sit in the stairwell with my book. It starts raining again and from down in the stairwell, the spatter of the rain on the sidewalk tile hits me like a light mist, gradually dampening the book, leaving a dry imprint of my fingers on the page. I take out my phone and my passport comes out with it again. I press the button on the phone. It’s 12:50. I go back to the wet book and wish I still smoked.