It is an unusually humid weekend in Annapolis, a former capitol of the United States and still the seat of government for the state of Maryland. Rain clouds have gathered on the horizon, the outer edges of a hurricane coming to shore further south along the coast. After brief bouts of intense rain over the course of the few days, the clouds finally parted onto a beautiful, bright, sunny day to allow for a pleasant stroll on the boardwalk alongside the docks overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.
“Let’s have lunch,” June suggested when we came upon a café selling sandwiches and gelato at the end of a strip of shops alongside the boats.
A petite woman with delicate features and an open and friendly face stood behind the counter of the cafe. She greeted us warmly as we approached.
“How can I help you?” she asked, with a distinct yet familiar singsong accent. She looked familiar, the way one does whose features are similar to the one you see in the mirror everyday.
“Where are you from?” I asked when I heard her speak.
“Tehran,” she responded and smiled.
“Are you Armenian?”
“Yes,” she said surprised at the question and her smile grew even wider. We exchanged pleasantries, introduced ourselves and June and I finally placed our order. When I reached for my wallet, Katrin shook her head “Eem huyres ek (you are my guests),” she said.
She joined us at our table when our plates arrived. There was an immediate sense of familiarity, like long lost childhood friends.
Katrin has lived in Annapolis close to twenty years. She, with her husband, arrived here from Tehran via Germany where she gave birth to her first son, Patrick, while waiting for their paperwork to emigrate to the U.S. They chose the East Coast because of her sister who lived in Baltimore. “Two, three months after we came to United States I went to California. It’s so different there. Stores, people, everywhere is Armenian. Glendale,” she says with a note of awe of the city she experienced nineteen years ago. But family was more important and they chose to set roots in the Baltimore area. They eventually drifted further out to settle in Annapolis and have lived in this charming, coastal city ever since.
“It was hard but I did it. Not only me, my family. It was very hard,” she says of the time it took to adapt to their new life in their adopted country. The first two years after arriving here, the intense loneliness caused her to seriously consider moving back to Tehran, no longer caring about the reasons that had prompted their move. But she knew that going back would also not be easy, “I try to control myself and know the situation so I get used to it,” she says with a voice filled with resignation. There is sadness in the timber of it, as if she has gotten used to the weight of her life and is now making the best of it.
Katrin is a twin and one of four sisters who all grew up in the Armenian neighborhood of Tehran where everyday was filled with the bustle of family and friends. Even when she married Vahe, they continued to live their life filled with social events and familial gatherings. “But when we came to Annapolis we had no one. It was very hard to be that much change in a life change. It was very tough,” she says.
Luckily her sister, now with two children of her own, still lives in Baltimore, a short 40 minute drive away, and her cousin has moved to Annapolis. “So she’s been a big company for me. We go out together. I find friends, a couple of American friends. We go out sometimes together but most of the time my time is with the family. So I’m happy with my boys, with my husband and my home and that’s it,” she says describing the things that now give her satisfaction and keep her company.
This little family of four is the only Armenian one in the city of 36,000 people. It was a challenge for her to teach her two children to speak Armenian. Both Patrick, now a college student, and Allen, a lacrosse playing athlete waiting to finish high school, speak fluent Armenian. By taking them to Saturday school in Baltimore once a week for two hour language classes, she has managed to achieve what most parents with access to vibrant Armenian communities have not been able to do. “You know children they try to speak English. So I told them ‘don’t speak English with me, I know you have enough at school [and] with friends but then you come home you should speak Armenian.’ That’s why they learn and keep speaking Armenian. I don’t want them to forget. I’m trying to do my best.”
The thought of moving back to Tehran is no longer a viable one for Katrin. She became disillusioned and lost the desire to live there after a visit back ten years after first leaving it. “I had kind of a hard time over there. I get very stressed and depressed,” she says. She suggested to her parents and the sisters left behind that, in the future, their family reunions take place in Armenia. They have managed two extended visits to the collective homeland in the ten years since her last visit to Iran. “We had a great, great time. I took my kids. They love it too. We see a lot of old churches. I loved it. I loved it. First moment we step on the ground in Armenia I had a special feeling. Oh my gosh. It feels like home. I don’t know. It’s like it’s my land, it’s my home. Ararat. Every morning I was getting up and opening the window looking at that.”
In the meantime, to keep a handle on her loneliness, Katrin has created a sort of family with her coworkers and employees. “I don’t have a lot of friends,” she says. “I have couple friends but the same thing, they’re very friendly, they’re very good people – I’m not saying any problem – but I don’t know, it’s different feeling when you have your own family or religion or [are with] Armenians.”
When asked where she would live given her choice of any location in the world, Katrin smiles shyly and says, “You know, I be honest – always with my children I tell the truth – I move to Armenia.”