It’s interesting how one individual’s perspective can get you thinking about something you have taken for granted the last 7 months. Reading Nora Injeyan’s story about safety in Armenia, I start to reflect on both my current and past experiences. It truly is an unappreciated privilege about living in the homeland. For a start, I know that I have barely known a carefree childhood, despite my parents’ relentless efforts to juggle that necessity with the aspect of safety. What I have known is this:
-Never talk to strangers
-Never get into a stranger’s car (this also means never being alone in a taxi cab, particularly late at night)
-Don’t talk about your personal life (it can be used against you)
-Mind your own business (Armenians have an especially hard time with that)
-Don’t stop to help someone on the street (you can be sued, kidnapped, be held responsible for something you didn’t do, etc.)
-Always stay in large groups and avoid certain choice areas
Here’s the thing. It suffocates you. I often felt like screaming at the world to just stop! Too many times I have driven by someone in need at the side of the road and felt sick to my stomach that I didn’t stop to see what was wrong, how I can help. I have fallen victim to the bystander effect, not even calling 911 to report there’s something wrong. I am ashamed of my behavior, but that is how we are trained, to turn a blind eye and think about our self first. Even in the planes, they caution you to put on your own oxygen mask before doing it for your child. How I would be able to live with myself if I followed those instructions, I don’t know. I despise the self-centered approach to ensuring one’s own safety. Perhaps that is one reason I fell in love with Armenia in the first place. I live. I literally live, here. I feel a net of safety, even with my parents and family on the other side of the world. I breath fresh air and feel like I have thrown off my shackles. I am free here, free to walk alone any time of day or night; free to greet everyone and share stories about life and philosophy. I am free, because that is how Armenia allows me to be.
Here, I am not afraid to sit in a taxi. I am aware, without doubt, and assess the situation carefully before feeling utterly comfortable. I do, however, feel a sense of comfort in the easy chatter I have with interesting, sometimes pompous, sometimes utterly silly, and, more often than not, amazingly sweet taxi drivers. I sit in front and have rarely known one to be rude or unacceptably forward, though you will meet such characters anywhere you go. Keep to a reputable taxi service or those with some of the older, tired pieces of metal still running after 25 years and you can rarely go wrong.
Do not talk to strangers, they said. Well, it’s rather impossible to keep to that admonishment and fervent request from your mother if the strangers talk to you. Furthermore, a simple heartfelt smile or bright-eyed greeting is enough to change everyone’s day. They love it, I love it, and now I have those around me evolving their speech from a simple “Barev” when I decide to make an appearance to asking about my health, my life, my move to Armenia, or simply complimenting something I did right. No one is really a stranger in this country, simply related to someone you may know up the street. Truly a lovely fact of life in Armenia. I’m rarely home, so I barely know my neighbors but every person on my street that I have met has been perfectly welcoming. A special mention, obviously, goes to my landlord and his family, who never leave me without.
In this country, it’s hard not to talk at least a little about your personal life. Actually, I would call it utterly difficult r completely impossible. Whether you are feeling up to learning about the taxi driver’s children’s accomplishments or the political woes that haunt this tiny little nation, you are hard-pressed to listen and respond in kind. As the days go by and you become a part of the life in this country, you also realize how absolutely absurd the idea you grew up with was when it came to divulging your personal details. Truly. 3/4 of the time, one of the first questions asked is “are you married?” followed by asking me if my family has moved as well. Technically, that comes before asking my age! Considering I look much younger than my 24 years (of which I am reminded on a daily basis), I find it particularly amusing when my answer is a resounding NO. All in all, I think I know the life stories of over half my acquaintances in Armenia, including the fruit and vegetable vendors on the street corners. After all, you definitely have to be one strange human not to share your and your family’s successes or woes with the rest of the world.
Something I absolutely love in Armenia is the fact that no one minds their own business. Mind you, that very fact is both a blessing and a curse, not quite sure which one in disguise, but it ensure that the media is somewhat useless in certain areas and help gets to where it’s needed before the ambulance does. A man suddenly fell to the ground as I was heading to work. My heart swelled at the sight of people running from all over, a few with phones ready to call for help, others holding the man up and checking to make sure all was physically fine. I have never seen that in Canada, never been witness to a total stranger stopping his or her car to check if you are all right. Needless to say, moments such as these have me grinning for the rest of the day, loving every moment of my life here. That simple warmth, the existence of the human need to help shining through, those are moments that keep me going. Life would be such a drab and worthless thing, in my eyes at least, if such moments did not exist.
A girl walking alone in a big city is normally a no-no, with all capitals and made bold to the tee. Except in Yerevan. Gyumri as well, where I worried about stray dogs more than stray men or women predators. We were told to be careful, of course, but the locals know their city better than any foreign visitor could, no matter how long he or she stayed there. I cannot count the number of times I have walked home alone, taken the bus or merely went out for a stroll after dark. I don’t worry here, and should anyone pop up, there usually are enough people around to still be safe in. Avoid the darkest of areas, since dogs still roam the city (though most were unfortunately shot within the last few years), and you rarely have a problem. The only thing is, you might be mistaken for one of the ladies of the night, which is a common misunderstanding easily sorted out. It also gains you many apologies and a companion to walk you close enough to your home to be safe. Always be alert, of course, but the average Armenian in this country is more than happy to walk you wherever you need to go should you get lost or need the help. That is most definitely a mind-boggling concept, particularly since I was raised in an environment where a stranger approaching you could only have evil thoughts lurking at the back of his conniving mind. To date, I have yet to encounter such a nasty person. It’s not that they do not exist among Armenians. It’s simply that they seem to be few and far between.
So yes, one of my favorite things about Armenia is the safety factor. Alongside, of course, the view of Ararat from Cascade, the dancing fountains of the Hrabarag, the funky old cars and mix of old and new buildings. I love discovering new mom and pops stores, watching the beautiful roller figure skater, enjoying the local cuisine with its absolute love for khorovadz and touti oghi, and simply strolling down the streets of Yerevan as I hear everyone (or most everyone) speaking Armenian.
In essence, there are so many hidden charms to this country that might not be apparent at one’s initial observation. Discovering what lies beneath is what makes things all the more entertaining.