Melia Hadidian Tichenor
Portland, OR, USA
When I first learned that my Birthright orientation would not take place until four days after my arrival, I had pre-arrival visions of spending my first weekend in Armenia – and my birthday weekend at that – awkwardly navigating a foreign world without support, lonely and unsure of what I had gotten myself into. I also wondered, on the flip side, how it would be to suddenly be living with an unknown family. At age 31, after living independently outside of my own family for over 10 years, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to adjust to being a “daughter” in a household again. Would it be weird? Limiting? Or – as I hoped – culturally and emotionally enriching?
With a deep breath, crossed fingers, and a bundle of nerves, I boarded my connecting flight in Austria, hoping I had made the right decision to come.
It was 4:15am by the time I walked out of the airplane terminal to the small gathering of Yerevanis waiting to pick-up their family members. I saw my name “Birthright Armenia: Melia Tichenor” and walked towards a middle-aged man who nodded and reached for my bag. He spoke little to no English, but beckoned me to follow him into the dark airport parking lot, wheeling my bag a few steps ahead. Getting into the passenger seat of this unknown man’s car, the thought crossed my mind that Birthright Armenia could be an incredible elaborate hoax to enslave unsuspecting diasporans and funnel them into some underground network, never to be heard from again. But then my up-till-then-silent driver handed over a packet of materials in English and an Armenian SIM card. Across the top was written “Welcome to Armenia!” followed by an enthusiastic and practical resource guide to orient new arrivals… and I exhaled. Things were going to be fine.
After a short drive through darkened Yerevan streets, my host father, Gegham, greeted our car in the back-alley entryway to their large soviet-era apartment building and walked me through a dimly lit hallway to a mini elevator comfortable enough to fit two, possible three humans. On the fifth floor, my host mother greeted us at the door, showed me to my room to drop off my stuff, and then ushered me into the living room for 4:45am tea, dried fruit, and fresh lavash bread. She spoke in English, grasping for words to welcome me into their home and ask how my trip had been. My host father introduced himself in Armenian and then tried a little Russian and French to see if either of those would work. We were both delighted to find French in common and continued very basic introductions from there, three people speaking to each other in three languages in hushed voices at a ridiculous hour of the morning.
In my sleep-deprived state, in an unknown apartment, in a country I’d never been to before, I felt an unmistakable sense of warmth. The energy was welcoming despite our halted speech and little things brought me right back to that nostalgic feeling of grandma’s house – the smell of the bathroom air freshener, the color of the cabinets, the dried fruit serving dishes, the art on the walls. And walking into my room with a woven Armenian carpet on the floor, I felt a wash of gratitude. I was here. I’d made it.
In the morning, I woke up eager to get to know this new reality and the warm, welcoming faces that had greeted me the night before.
Breakfast itself was a dream, as I was greeted with grilled lavash sandwiches, rolled with melted cheese and curds, and interspersed with a tasty mixture of fresh herbs – cilantro, fennel, and another wild-grown herb only gathered during Spring months for which I haven’t been able to find a translation. Sprinkled atop these butter-fried rolls was a mixture of white and black sesame seeds popular to this region. The result was mouth-wateringly good – and was followed by offerings of fresh apricot and plum preserves that she had made herself during canning season. I can’t tell you how happy my taste buds have been in this culinarily-gifted household!
Over the course of the next few days, I learned that my host mother, Alla, was an Armenian teacher as her first career (a helpful plus to someone just learning the language for the first time!), and now spends her time raising her nearly-10-year-old son Narek and supporting her “kamavor daughters” (volunteer daughters) with delicious cooking, warm conversation, and help in learning the Armenian language. I am her seventh “kamavor daughter” in her three years of hosting Birthright volunteers. She believes in the power of home-cooked healthy meals and loves having volunteers in the house to serve as surrogate sisters to her energetic and pretty darn adorable son.
Thanks to the comfortable and inviting atmosphere Alla helped create during my first two days in Armenia, I felt okay casually mentioning my upcoming Sunday birthday in the course of our conversation… and I’m so glad I did!
Stay tuned for Part II, coming soon!