I cannot say my 8 weeks in Gyumri were easy...oh no, they were rather challenging. However, I have learned how to find comfort in discomfort. Considering Gyumri is only a 2 hour drive from Yerevan, it is also about 30 years behind and a whole other world in itself.
I really recommend anyone doing Birthright Armenia also to spend time living in Gyumri, even though I struggled most days. Because of this experience, I met some amazing Gyumritsis, who were so kind, helpful, interested, loving, (some very progressive) open, and extremely hospitable. In addition to the amazing people, I had the chance to meet and work alongside contributing and working hard in making a difference in Gyumri and Armenia and return, allowing me to see different perspectives and learning the reality of this city.
I will miss my daily (sometimes twice) coffees with my neighbors, cuddles, and conversations with my host mama while we de-shelled walnuts some nights, my job sites, the fruit man next door who I would greet twice a day, the amazing staff (Sona and Khatchig) and those small simple things that would happen in my day teaching me something different whether it was about myself, a different way of life, learning to be flexible, not taking things personally, trying to understand why people are the way they are rather than judging why they are the way there are, being more open-minded, sitting in discomfort and growing stronger - even when it didn't feel that way — also feeling empowered to sit in the front of a marshutka and empowering other women to do the same.
The cold definitely brought me down, although it revealed my resilience as I still pushed myself to do my best every day as well as making me most grateful for the not so winters back home.
However, seeing snowfall and just SNOW itself for the first time was truly magical!!! Like wow…even brought tears down, seeing the delicate and gentle snowflakes falling from the sky was worth the low temperature.
Life isn't easy for many here and can somewhat understand this now and have definitely experienced a different way of life, for example "Preparing for a winter" something people in my country know nothing about nor is it necessary to do so as everything is available to us all year round. For example, during the summertime, every household prepares fruit compotes, jams, mooraba, vegetable sauces, and pickles, sealing them in glass jars and storing them in the special cupboard as not everything is available during the cold months or become expensive.
Gyumri people are very interested in who you are and will welcome just about anyone into their homes, which is something to appreciate about this city. The neighbor will pop in to get some potatoes or flour, front doors are always open, everyone is willing to help each other, and no one is ever a stranger, and no question is ever off limits either. People talk to you like they know you or they want to know you… "Oor deghitsek? (Where are you from?)" or "Amoosnatsadzes (Are you married)" and "Kani daregan es (how old are you?)" are normal everyday questions. Still, instead of being offended, you need to consider they haven't had too many interactions with "foreigners" other than Russians. One time a woman even offered to take me to a doctor about my skin, which of course, isn't so pleasant to hear from a stranger, but hey, the intent is not to offend or upset you. They are simply interested in helping. Take it in a positive light; they are interested in you and want to help!
Even though the city hadn't completely recovered after the awful earthquake 31 years ago, they still somehow do all in their power to make you feel welcome and ensure you've had coffee or food.
Coming from a tourism background and traveled myself, I always like to support local people and businesses and visit the less touristic places. Gyumri, not being a very touristic destination in Armenia I would get so excited when I would see the odd German, Swiss or French tourist in Gyumri (they are easy to spot) as they have ventured outside Yerevan to this amazing little city that carries so much personality.
Mersi Gyumri and thank you, Birthright for giving me the opportunity to see as a local, learn and grow.