A man wearing khaki shorts and sunglasses was blocking my way. In the cramped space between the meat deli and the shelves of neatly stacked lavash, or soft paper-thin layers of fresh bread, my half-full shopping cart and I came to an abrupt halt. A woman next to the khaki-clad man was arguing with a harried-looking shop assistant.
“We would like Diet Pepsi,” she told the sales clerk in English.
The assistant hesitated before picking out two bottles of an amber-colored liquid. He held them, arms outstretched, in an almost supplicant gesture.
“No. No. No. Diet Pepsi,” the woman insisted.
I edged my cart around the couple. Tourists, I thought, shaking my head.
Three weeks into my stay in Yerevan, I felt I was starting to blend in. I consumed copious amounts of cherries and apricots and heartily agreed with Armenians that their fresh and fragrant fruit is the best in the world. And I no longer checked the weather outside my window in the mornings—I already knew it was going to be sunny. And hot.
But most of all, whenever the opportunity arose, I stood and gazed at Mount Ararat’s ghostly presence looming over the horizon. An Armenian friend told me the snow-capped peak looked different every day. Though my natural cynicism led me to scoff at such sentimentality, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge, one evening, as I watched the imposing mountain slowly transition into twilight shadows of faded blues and purples.
After someone stopped me in the street and spoke Armenian to me—presumably asking for directions—I decided it was time to put my Armenian-ness to the test. If I could get through an entire grocery shopping expedition without appearing as a foreigner, I figured I could call myself reasonably well-adjusted. Shopping list in hand, I found myself at the Star Supermarket a block away from my apartment.
I stepped out of the summer heat into the cool interior of the store and claimed one of the Lilliputian shopping carts—so tiny you have to bend over to reach the handlebar. I strode confidently toward the produce section and picked out several shiny, ripe tomatoes beneath the watchful eye of the shop assistant hovering but a few inches away. According to a colleague of mine, if you choose only the nicest fruit, you may be charged extra. Hesitant to challenge such an advantageous marketing strategy, I glanced at the salesperson and blindly scooped several generous handfuls of glossy, blood-red cherries into a bag.
The shop assistant stared vacantly into space. So far so good, I thought.
I headed over to the fridge and stocked up on Jajukh, a mixture of tart yogurt and cool cucumbers with a hint of fresh mint—perfect for a hot summer day. I turned to the three now familiar shapes of salty, tangy cheese: stick-form, string-form and tied-in-a-bow-form. It had taken my Italian-trained mind some time to figure out that the packages of slender strings of cheese, twisted like delicate birds’ nests, were not vacuum packed pasta. Today I opted for bow-form. My cart was filling up.
I sped past the minuscule deli, fearful of ordering three pounds of marinated chicken gizzards by mistake, and came to a standstill before the shelves of household items. A middle-aged woman stooped in front of the single row of detergents and took up the entire width of the aisle.
I waited. “Excuse me” would have rapidly brought my undercover operation to an end. I racked my brains trying to remember the Armenian equivalent from my practical “Eastern Armenian Dictionary and Phrasebook”. But all I came up with was a jumble of vowels and consonants which I was fairly certain didn’t amount to anything intelligible.
I shifted my weight. The woman continued examining the detergent options in front of her—all three of them. I cleared my throat.
I cleared my throat again, this time increasing the volume. The woman started and looked up at me. I smiled apologetically, a hand resting on my throat as if affected by a severe case of laryngitis.
“Merci,” I croaked as she stepped aside with a look of alarm. I thanked the French for their generous linguistic loan which allows me to say “thank you” without actually having to pronounce the Armenian tongue-twister shnorhakalutyun.
I squeezed past the woman, managing not to capsize the precariously balanced bottles of unidentified cleaning products and dexterously navigated my way toward the cash register.
The dark-haired woman at the register mumbled “Barev.”
“Hello,” I translated mentally and regaled her with a mute smile.
I stacked my items vertically onto the miniature conveyor belt. When I finished perching the last tomato at the very top of my produce pyramid—which I considered a stroke of architectural genius—the woman at the register looked up at me.
“Blah, blah, blah, STAR,” she mumbled. “Blah, blah, blah, CARD?”
I took this to be “Do you have a Star loyalty card?” I shook my head and smiled some more. The woman hesitated and turned back to scanning the fruits and vegetables. The final total appeared on the screen. I placed a wad of cash onto the plastic tray above the register.
This is going rather well, I thought as the woman handed me the change.
“Mumble, mumble STAR,” the woman said.
I froze. Was that a question?
The silence stretched between us as my mind scrambled for possible linguistic clues. And then it hit me. She must have said “Thank you for shopping at Star,” I decided.
I gave her my most dazzling smile. “Merci” I said as I collected my grocery bags. I quietly congratulated myself on my entirely successful shopping experience. Three weeks in Armenia and I was officially starting to feel at home.
As I turned to leave, the woman at the register regarded me with a bemused smile.
“You’re welcome,” she said in English.
“Good-bye!” she called after me.
I headed out the door and back into the scorching sunlight.
Chicago-based journalist Sigrid Lupieri is spending her summer in Armenia and will periodically be sharing her impressions.