Christmas and New Years Eve came so suddenly. While trying to get more acquinted with Armenia and its culture and being busy with the classes on the University, i didnt even realised that already 4 months passed and the season of celebrations was knocking on the door.
The shiny and colorful decorations were springing up around the city and hordes of people were attacking the food stores in order to make tables to be as “rich” as possible. People even do more than they can afford, since it’s believed that “You’ll spend the year just the way you’ve welcomed it” and they have a very typical which is called guest-host tradition. After the New Years Eve the holiday routine begins… endless family visits and guest welcoming and it lasts for a week.
For a couple of days we visited at least 2 houses per day and that was already slighty too much becuase on each visit everyone has to try all the dishes that the hosts have prepared. Even if you are full, they will insist so it’s hard to resist. I think there’s an unannounced competition among the families and housewives – whose table will be richer and more original that year, so the preparations are taken very seriously. Without any exaggeration, i guess the most important part of New Year celebration is the table. Guests cannot leave the table with the feeling of hunger, because, as a rule, they should eat everything that hosts offer, otherwise they might be offended.
So, the New Year is traditionally spent with the family. Since I’m far away from my Croatian family, this year i have celebrated it among my Armenian and international friends that became a sort of my family away from home.
We all cooked together a day before and after we layed food around the table we were watching the Catholicos’ and President’s speeches on the Interent and watching the Republic Square clock ticking. With the ticking, we wrote wishes for the upcoming year on a piece of paper which we burned and put ashes in our raised glasses, said toasts, shared hugs and started eating since we were all starving at that point 🙂
Here they have a special Santa Claus or Gaghant Baba who looks a bit more ethnographically dressed and for these days he distributes gifts to people, especially pastries. It is believed if they become too puffy after baking it would be a good year.
Christmas in Armenia is being celebrated on January 6th. The Christmas party tends to be quiet, more focused on family than on festivity. Armenians celebrate with a symbolic Christmas tree, decorated with fruit and bows in the national colors. They garland the Christmas tree; red for the blood that has been shed for the country, orange for the rich land, and blue for the sky that watches over it.
During the day we walked around the city despite cold and there was a distinct sense of cheer in the air. Children’s laughter was floating through the streets and people were strolling without urgency. On the evening, we went to the church and lighted candles in order to clean the house from dark spirits; i guess it worked as the feelings of responsibility of fellow dormates changed a bit and they started cleaning after themselves so the dorms felt more comfortable to live in for a while.
On one of the weekends in February, while the temperatures were still hitting -20C, we went on a hike to gorge of Arpa river and it was my first time to hike through the snow. We stayed in an old house of an Armenian family and during the night we all slept around the wood stove as it was the only source of heat. Our driver greeted us back with cooked harissa (thick porridge made from wheat and chicken) and i think it was the most delicious meal I ate, likely because we walked 6h and and we were all on the verge of endurance. On the way back we stopped in Jermuk which is a mountain spa town and its famous for its hot springs and mineral water pools.
In Armenia, it is an honour to host guests therefore invitation to attend meal in their homes are offered often. On one occasion we visited a Kurdish friend, who is married for an Armenian woman, near Tsaghkadzor, which literally means valley of flowers and it’s a popular spa town and health resort.
We used cable car to get to the top of the mountain but didn’t wanted to pay for the skiing passes as popular also means quite expensive. Being resourceful, we found a plastic bag to slide down and it was a loads of fun to do it. Although we didn’t meet wife before she made a lavish lunch and a cake on which a poem about friendship was written by hand! In fact, cold and long winter was more bearable since the hearts of people were making it more warm.
Work after the holidays got more intense since students were more enthusiastic about the classes and i even got two students who were willing to start learning Croatian. My Armenian by this time was getting better as well as my Russian and I felt quite happy of finally being able to read what am I buying or having small talks in the shops with locals. We participated on an event called Education XXI Century, International Expo 2017 where we presented our projects and EVS.
During March and for almost three months once a week I was going to a small village called Vanashen which was about 50kms away from Yerevan to teach English plus doing trainings with them covering different topics. The place was so remote that even the taxi drivers didn’t know where was it exactly 😀 It was a pleasure to see how their level of English was improving and their shyness was melting like a snow with the first spring rays of sun. Spring also brough incredibly beautiful horizons of apricot trees blooming, filling the air with a sweet, fresh smell. On our last meeting, they made a suprise party for us and gave us gifts.
With half a year behind me, the time has come for mid-term meeting for EVS volunteers in Caucasus region and the activity took place in Misaksieli in Georgia.
Most of the volunteers were from Armenia and we all knew each other from before so it wasn’t so much about meeting new people but getting closer to each other. However, there were a few new faces and it was great to make new contacts. Our lovely trainers particularly stressed that it was a „meeting“ and not a „training“ which meant that the emphasis was on evaluation of our projects so far and self-reflection. We also had more time for relaxed conversations with each other and it’s pretty interesting how easier is to realize your own feelings through a simple chat with people who are in the same situation as you. So, methods used during the meeting were a great example of non formal learning process for me.
On a last day we had a free time and chance to explore charming Tbilisi and we also visited Tbilisi sea, which is actually a lake. In the evening, we had a supra, traditional Georgian feast, in a restaurant overlooking Tbilisi. What else can 20 people from different countries do together? Well, have fun, obviously. Thank you EU 🙂
After the training, volunteers from Geogia hosted few of us in their apartment in Rustavi so we had a bit more time to get acquainted with Georgian culture.
On a return back to Yerevan, two birthdays were approaching so we threw them a suprise party filled with whipped cream and confetti which ended up on their faces.
Although the temperatures were still low and i guess this is the coldest, the snowiest, the foggiest and the longest winter i’ve experienced, all of us tried to keep our spirits high and make our stay memorable and interesting. We organised traditional dance evenings around the fire, pizza nights and movie screenings; we visited museums and numerous monasteries, walked on a frozen Sevan lake, tried carpet weaving and making pottery..
Even thought new calendar year was at the beginning, I already had opportunity to experience three different celebrations. On was Armenian and other two were Persian New Year called Nowruz and Yezidi New Year festival.
Nowruz which means „new day“ is celebrated in honor of spring on March 21st on the Spring Equinox. Celebration usually starts on the last Wednesday before Nowruz and people dance and jump over fire which represents a gesture of purification ahead of the new year. In the final days leading up to Nowruz, we prepared a table which is set with seven items all starting the with an “s” sound that are symbolic of the time of the year and they are supposed to represent what people hope to bring into the new year, like apples for beauty, garlic for health, coins for future prosperity, dried fruits for love, etc.
As for the Yezidi new year, known as Sere sal, we visited their temple in village Aknalich. It’s celebrated on a particular Wednesday of April, known as Red Wednesday and it was two days after Easter. Yazidis are the largest minority group in Armenia and because their community is displaced around the world and facing extinction, seeing how proud are they and the importance of the temple for them to keep their culture and identity was heartwarming. The festival celebrates the nature, fertility, and creation of the universe and the central figure of their faith is a “peacock angel”.
This month we organised a presentation for the students on the University during which we wanted to reveal our Easter customs to them. We even got interviewed for the local television and i didn’t even realise that i became a sort of local star until few vendors started telling me they saw me on the television and how interesting it was for them to hear about our countries.
Easter in Armenia is called Zatik which means a ladybird and it’s more common to see figures of them as a decoration than bunnies. It was quite colorful and joyful celebration and they also make competitions in „egg fights“. We dyed eggs in red using onion peels and roots of some plant as we heard it is accepted to paint eggs only in that colour, as the embodiment of the holy blood, but slowly the western traditions are more visiable. In the evening we were strolling through the bustling streets, admiring the candle lights while trying to walk off some of the food we had consumed.
On the end of April, very important day for Armenians all over the world arrived. Since the 1920s April 24th is the day to commemorate the victims of Armenian genocide which is the most tragic element of their history. A silent march of hundred thousand people moves to the Genocide Memorial and everyone brings flowers to place around the eternal fire. The Turkish government denies that there was a planned genocide. Many countries, as well as Croatia, back its position and are careful not to use the term as it may strain their relations with Turkey.
Since University is in the centre and since the weather improved, I used the time after work to explore some unknown parts of Yeravan. One of the most interesting neighborhoods I came across is called Kond and it’s somewhat forgotten part of the city.
Most of the buildings date back to 16th century, while Yerevan was under Persian rule, and it’s one of the oldest quarters still preserved. Actually, when you walk around you forget that you are in the city centre, as it’s like a city inside of a city. Labyrinth of narrow stony streets, roads which are mostly not paved, small houses which are bent to each other with cracks in the walls and crumbling celiling, there is no innovation, it is unique by the existence of an Iranian mosque and an Armenian church and it is unique by its special tranquility.
Another very interesting place is medieval Noratus cemetery with a largest cluster of khachkars on the coast of lake Sevan. Khachkars are cross-stones characteristic to Armenia and they are inscribed in the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage.
With moody spring slowly approaching, we were also crawling out of our winter rest and we spent more time outdoors exploring and sunbathing on the Cascades (probably the most expensive staircase in the world that was built just to make the city look prettier). Also, we had to say bye to some volunteers finishing their projects.
Our dear Carolin from Germany, who was a volunteer on Brusov University and a collegue, was leaving soon so we organised a big khoravats farewell party in a friend’s house. There was an air of excitement and a feeling of sadness as it’s always hard to say bye to wonderful people, but looking back and reflecting on the journeys we’ve shared together i feel quite happy to meet those kind of people. As a famous teddy bear named Winnie-the-Pooh, once said: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”