The Armenian Affair

BY KRISTI RENDAHL
From the Armenian Weekly

If it’s true that opposites attract, then Armenia and I were a match made in heaven. Our grand love affair is not simply a series of experiences and events. For me, it has been a process of learning and growing, of becoming more human. I can’t imagine myself without her influence.

Sure, there’s a laundry list of superficial things I learned while living in Armenia. Believe it or not, I didn’t eat tomatoes, onions, peppers, fish, yogurt, tea, and more before I moved there. Not because my parents wouldn’t provide them—in fact, we grew many vegetables in our garden, mom made homemade yogurt, and dad and I went fishing year-round. I was simply convinced that I did not and would not like them, because my dad didn’t like those things. And if my dad didn’t like them, then neither would I. (Incidentally, my father now eats all of the above, too, but never lived in Armenia. I don’t know how that happened.)

It’s apt then that food played a central role during my time in Armenia. I don’t know another language with a verb for hosting that carries such widely understood implications as “seghan anel” (to do a table). My dinner parties are over-the-top by American standards, and my food contributions to work meetings unexpected, but they could never compete with the extensive and militant nature of hospitality bestowed upon guests by peoples like the Armenians, Persians, and Arabs.

There is also the culture’s affinity for leisurely walks and dressing well. Most Americans don’t understand why anyone walks anywhere or why someone would dress up if doing so were not absolutely required. The meticulous dress is often for show, but I believe it’s about pride in a way that’s mostly helpful. Over time, some of these acquired habits have begun to conflict with one another. If you’d walked a mile in some of my teeteez (silly, impractical) shoes, you’d understand what I mean.

Other lessons have gone deeper. I was recently in court for a trivial lawsuit against an organization of which I serve on the board. A fairly sheltered Scandinavian girl from the Great Plains, conflict of any kind, let alone face-to-face, is not something I was born to embrace—there are times when just unrestrained speech takes my breath away—but I wanted to be a reasonable presence amid the insanity.

It’s no secret to the readers of this newspaper that conflict is something Armenians understand entirely too well. While I seek closure in every conversation, Armenia has a host of unresolved issues with which to contend from year to year, decade to decade. Living among people who exist in a fairly constant state of anxiety and concern has given me a heightened ability to deal with the inevitable tension that exists in our lives. Even if it still makes me sweat.

Something you can’t avoid in Armenia is emotion. It’s effusive, it’s overbearing, it’s heart rending, and it follows you. One moment you may be talking with a homeless woman and her children selling flowers in the street, and the next moment you are sitting in a high-end restaurant that the prime minister frequents. On the way, the taxi driver will have told you how he tries to feed his family, and you’ll have run into an old friend who has earned a highly respected university degree but can’t find an appropriate job in the country. If you are like me and talk with anyone within shouting distance, you’ll also have heard several self-deprecating jokes about Armenia’s people and culture, just after everyone raised their glasses to her enviable history. You absorb it all, because trying to escape it is futile. And you always feel alive.

This pervasive connection to emotions is what shapes so many wonderful parts of the culture. Take, for example, the courtship that occurs when people first meet. They have coffee, they have dinner, they perform music and recite poetry for each other, they drive into the countryside for a picnic. I speak not of love-struck madness, but relationships that develop between mere friends, colleagues, neighbors. Oh, were my own compatriots to appreciate these nuanced rituals!

At its core, the nation is filled with passion. I wish for everyone to know a people or even just a person with as much passion. People who eat with abandon, who sing away their angst, and who survive because they must. There are many who avoid what is different, unconventional, and unnerving. I believe that we would be better off if we walked directly into the abyss of the unknown to see what we might learn. In such a short life, it seems likely that our knowledge and maturity will quickly plateau if we are not willing to take some of these perceived risks. Worse yet, we will never become all we really are.

Originally from a family farm in North Dakota, Kristi Rendahl lived and worked in Armenia from 1997-2002 and visits the country whenever possible. She works with non-profit organizations in her consulting practice (www.rendahlconsulting.com) and is pursuing a doctorate in public administration. Through her travels, she has met Armenians in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Ethiopia, and across the U.S. Currently, Kristi resides in St. Paul, Minn.

Food played a central role during my time in Armenia. I don’t know another language with a verb for hosting that carries such widely understood implications as ‘seghan anel’ (to do a table).

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