“If you were given a chance to see gorgeous mountains higher than the Alps and embrace Stalinist-style architecture, would you say no?” asked Alex in a rush. It was summer as I sat idly in Hamburg. He just received a response from the Chair of Expeditions Committee.
Being asked to lead a group of young volunteers at the Transcaucasian Trail in Armenia, he soon planned to depart. I thought of a similar place I had been to before, Georgia. A pristine paradise of deep valleys and endless vistas stretching across the border to my native Russia suddenly evoked engrossing nostalgia. I immediately agreed and the next moment we found ourselves in the almost empty departure hall of Hamburg Airport. A rather late-night flight from Germany’s Helmut Schmidt Flughafen seemed to be empty enough to relax with luxurious extra-legroom and several Armenians chitchatting around. However, I could not sleep.
Scrolling through outdated magazines, I worried about our stay in Armenia. We did need a place to sleep in Yerevan. Deep in my heart I would hope for a caring, warm host that truly captures the spirit of Airbnb or at least a place at a decent B&B. But just as Armenia was thrilling for Alex, so was it for me, too. Both of us were just two audacious travelers, – headed towards the mysterious post-Soviet unknown. From the sky Yerevan was dimly lit. Once our old Airbus had landed in the dark lands of a night Armenia, we entered customs. I picked up our dusty backpacks from a shabby baggage carousel, whilst Alex tried to figure out the Armenian roaming data. After some abracadabra he announced we have a host address. A woman who lived in the city center of Yerevan was a forty-second cousin on his friend’s father’s side. I had no high expectations.
Once we left the airport, we took a cab ride. A driver, an energetic young Armenian guy, talked nonstop. I had a feeling of being on the late-night radio show. “In Soviet times, the capital underwent a radical massive facelift”, the driver enthused. “Following the architect’s Alexander Tamanyan vision the downtown of Yerevan was re-purposed…” I wondered whether we should reward his outstanding tour-guiding abilities in the end of the ride, too. After passing the American University of Armenia, he stopped.
We faced a multi-storey Khruschev-era house with balconies that hanged ghastly from a typical façade. The house had no lighting. The elevator groaned eerily as we went up. Soon we stood in front of a chipped-paint metal front door. The corridor smelled of fried onions. The smell my Grandma usually had reminded me of a childhood, and seemingly neverending joy that can only be found when you visit your old ones. I rang once and we waited nervously. Finally the large door opened. I saw Nona.
Short, with tiny wrinkles on her cheeks, she was no older than 40. A pitch-back mop of hair slightly touched a traditional Armenian shawl spread over her fastidious shoulders. She whispered something indolently in English and invited us into the house. It was two in the morning. I felt uncomfortable as I realized she had waited for us eagerly so far into the night. After walking along a corridor decorated with the colourful, variegated carpet – my Grandma and half of the Soviet population had the same – we entered a small dimly-lit room. Next to the neat bed I saw apricot seeds. Armenians believe that this fruit embodies the nature of the Armenian Highlands, a birthplace of Indo-European people.
Nona gently knocked at the door. I heard jingling sound of plates and spoons. “I brought you some pie. It’s not good to sleep with the empty stomach. In Armenia you would never starve”, whispered Nona. The next morning we were greeted with even more food. The table groaned with freshly brewed coffee and pastry, goat cheese and juicy cherries. The very next morning I also found out that Nona’s husband had stomach cancer. He laid in bed behind that one kitchen wall, a wall that divided starvation from feast. “In Armenia you would never starve”, whispered Nona again and crossed herself.