Every morning I drink coffee from my mug etched with a "handmade in Gyumri” inscription, staring at my little door and window souvenir from Varem Marem studio, dreaming.
Speaking of Varem Marem, that was one of my jobsites through Birthright. I got to help paint the souvenir doors and make the clay letters that make up their famous wall of names-a must see if you're in the area. I also got to help at a cheese farm in Meghrashat through Shen NGO. My jobsites were avenues for me to gain new experiences and skills, and everyone was so welcoming.
When I first arrived, I felt like a foreigner. I tend to need more breathing space than the average person, which can clash with Armenian culture as you can imagine, so my adjustment period was rather stressful. I felt like I was supposed to feel at home in a foreign land, where I didn't understand the customs and they didn't understand mine.
All of that changed when I began to feel integrated into life with my host family. My host father had his birthday party, and their family and friends came over. There was so much singing and dancing that night, so much joy. From that point on, I looked forward to coming home every evening and chatting with my host mom over dinner. My goodbye with her was so emotional, with hugs and tears and plans to stay connected.
FROM TOURIST TO COMFORTABLE?
Initially, I felt like a tourist when taking public transportation to work. The marshutka can be a stressful way to get around-piles and piles of people squeezing into a vehicle with absolutely no room, multiple people sharing seats and sitting on laps and many more hurting our backs standing and squeezing in to fill every possible tiny space. It seems Armenians have a knack for creating space when there is none. I will say, I miss the marshutkas. It's so endearing how concerned our people are about who needs the seats more, watching people argue and stand up and convince others to take their seats. One day I thought to myself "I'm taking a marshutka to work" like it was just a regular part of my day-it finally felt comfortable, familiar, ordinary.
What made things even better was getting involved in things I love, such as dancing with the Hrayrq Dance Group. We even got to dance at Saghmosavank with them on one of our excursions. That was an integral part of my turning point-not only connecting with other Birthright and AVC volunteers, but also connecting with locals and finding my pockets of community within Gyumri's already very communal lifestyle. And that's exactly what I love about this place-there's such a warmth here, so much love even from strangers.
FROM COMFORTABLE TO SETTLED
There was this day I remember vividly: I was going back to my host family's house from work, and I would always struggle to find my stop. To say that I am directionally challenged would be an understatement, so I would often have to ask the people on the marshutka to direct me. One time this woman was mistaken about where my stop was, so we ended up passing my host family’s house. When she realized her mistake, she got off the marshutka with me even though she had several more stops to go to get home. We were in an intense downpour, as sometimes happens with Gyumri's rain. She had an umbrella, I didn't, so she ran with me in pouring rain for 20 minutes to my host family's building before going back to the bus stop and getting on another marshutka. That is only one example of many of the care I experienced in Armenia.
These little gems of encounters with the locals, peppered into my Birthright experience, are what made my attachment to Gyumri grow-to the point where I find living anywhere else unfathomable. I am now in process of reframing what my next steps are going to be, with immense gratitude to Birthright that I discovered this place.