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Postcard from Armenia: “Just let me tell my story”

Postcard from Armenia: “Just let me tell my story”

The long summer day dissolved languidly into dusk as an Armenian friend and I walked down a busy road in Yerevan. The gaudy lights of an amusement park spilled onto the sidewalk. On the other side of the street, I could make out the darkened outline of a former Soviet theater, a nightmarish vision of the Sydney Opera House redesigned in the architectural style of Gotham City.

My friend pointed to a brightly illuminated modern church.

“I heard about the first wedding they ever celebrated there,” she said, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “A scorpion dropped onto the bride and stung her. She died.”

A dramatic pause ensued as I processed the information.

“I’m pretty sure scorpions in Armenia aren’t deadly,” I ventured. “Didn’t they bring her to the hospital? And anyway…”

My friend stared at me and blinked.

“She died days later,” she said. “Complications.”

That night, in my apartment, I resisted the urge to type “bride killed by scorpion in Yerevan” into the Google search box. What would be the point?

From elderly women clustered on benches lining the sidewalk, swatting at flies as they seek refuge from the scorching summer sun, to a middle-aged pot-bellied man leaning across his fresh smoothie stand to talk to a customer, in this small country of improvised bards and raconteurs, everyone has a story to tell.

Sitting with an Armenian friend and her family in the cheery kitchen of their small apartment, we sipped herbal tea and watched the darkness gathering outside. My friend’s mother had laid out a feast of fresh vegetables, Armenian cheeses and home-made dolma, or ground beef wrapped in cabbage leaves.

As we sipped our tea, we took turns sharing tales of social gaffes and blunders and the absurdities of the human condition.

“My mother has the best story,” my friend said.

Her mother took on the graceful air of a true storyteller.

“This is what happened,” she said. “I was visiting a neighbor I didn’t know very well.”

My friend chuckled. Her mother continued unperturbed.

“I heard my neighbor’s husband had recently died,” she said. “When I entered her house, I saw she had laid out a cloth on a small table. A photograph in a frame was propped up, surrounded by flowers.”

The rest of the family leaned forward, laughing in anticipation.

The storyteller’s voice turned grave, with the timbre of barely expressed sorrow. “I pointed to the picture,” she said. “’And this is your dearly departed husband?’”

I strained to catch the words over the raucous laughter.

The teller continued weaving her narrative, with dignified gravitas, to its end. “My neighbor shook her head. ‘No, that’s my mother.’”

Our explosive laughter rang out through the open window and into the night. My friend’s mother brought out cake and fresh cherries as we spun a second round of tales.

Sometimes, understanding the story is not even important.

A taxi driver taking me home from an interview one day launched into a detailed account in Russian of his youth, while he swerved down the road and munched on a handful of apricots from a crumpled paper bag. Though I could only understand a couple of words interspersed along the narrative, such as “trip,” “woman,” “beach,” “house,” I laughed at what I hoped were the appropriate places. The driver didn’t seem to mind. He slapped his knee with gusto and handed me some apricots.

Some stories, of course, are truer than others. But the no man’s land between factual accuracy and what makes a more interesting tale is rarely the issue. When a friend recounted an incident I had witnessed, my professional instinct led me to curb any gross exaggerations. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, with an impatient wave of his hand after my umpteenth interruption in the name of journalistic integrity. “I’m Armenian. Just let me tell my story.”

And in most cases, it’s more than just a story.

When I leave Armenia in a couple of days, what I will miss most will not only be the spontaneous open-hearted hospitality of the strangers and friends I have met along the way, but also the visceral enjoyment that comes from sharing words and laughter over a cup of dark, gritty Armenian coffee.

Today, suspended somewhere in the limbo between leaving and being gone, every moment slipping past has already begun to acquire the fuzzy outline and the dull ache of a memory. As I prepare for the second part of my trip to South Asia and as I write this last “Postcard from Armenia,” I have come to realize that one of my chapters is trickling down to the last word.

But, as I am sure Armenians would agree, I have learned that how the story ends is not really important. It’s how you tell it that counts.

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