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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

As young men, we dreamed of going to Armenia. We finally made it, just a few years later than we'd planned.

 “I knew we’d get to Armenia together. But I didn’t think we’d be old men when we got here. How did this happen?”Aram Aslanian in Yerevan, April 22, 2015. 

There was no magic moment, at least that I recall, but Aram and I must have been nine or 10 years old when we first started talking about going to Armenia together. 

We grew up in suburban New Jersey, but Armenia was a powerful and constant presence in our lives – the idea and ideal of Armenia, at least, if not the country itself.  We learned its history and myths at Armenian school on Saturdays, and we chanted its hymns in church on Sundays.  

Our parents took turns driving us to Camp Haiastan in Massachusetts each summer so we could sing songs of national liberation as we hiked across woods and fields we imagined to be the Armenian Highlands 

As we grew, so did our circle of Armenian friends and our involvement in Armenian activities. When we were old enough to drive, we’d cruise up and down the East Coast from New York to Boston to Philadelphia to Washington or wherever there was an Armenian dance or a basketball game – any excuse to be with Armenians. 

So of course we wanted to go to Armenia, to be in Armenia. It was perfectly natural. It just wasn’t practical. 

There really was no country called Armenia back then. The name appeared on maps only in the descriptive introduction to a Soviet “republic” that appeared as cold and grim as the rest.  The Armenia we sang our camp songs about was separate but equally uninviting, still under Turkish dominion and bereft of the people and culture our grandparents knew. 

Of course, we could have gone to either place, as many Armenians from around the world did. Our checks and Visa cards would have been welcomed by hotels and tour guides on either side of the Soviet-Turkish border. We'd be standing on the land of our ancestors, regardless of the current tenants. 

In truth, reality was less appealing than our childhood fantasy, as reality usually is.  We continued to talk about going to Armenia as we got older, but there were always other realities to deal with: work, home, family. Aram became Dr. Aslanian, professor of psychology. I became a reporter, editor and author. It’s not that we didn’t notice the fall of Soviet communism and the rebirth of independent Armenia in 1991—but, well, we were busy.

We retired about the same time a few years back, but even then we weren’t quite ready to fly across the world. I really didn’t want to walk across the street to the pool. My ideal retirement here in Florida involved nothing more strenuous than opening the patio door. Aram was only a bit more energetic: He retired to Maine, so he kept in shape by shivering all winter. 

When he finally warmed up in the spring of 2014, Aram phoned. “I’m going to Armenia and I’m not going without you,” he said. I asked for time to think about it but Aram has always insisted on being spontaneous. “We’re going in the fall, so get ready.” 

Aram spent the next couple of months planning, but he didn’t plan on being sidelined by a bum foot. It’s the sort of thing us old guys are learning to deal with but not exactly getting used to.  So the trip was delayed, which turned out to be a very good thing because Aram also didn’t plan on a sudden detour to have a stent inserted in his heart. 

I put the trip out of mind until my interest was sparked by another unexpected turn of events two month ago. An opportunity to attend the London Book Fair with other Armenian authors was too interesting to pass up. We had only a few weeks to decide and make plans, but Robyn and I were both struck by the same thought: If we’re on the far side of the Atlantic anyway, why not continue on to Armenia? 

With the timing of the fair in mid-April, we could be in Yerevan for the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. I called Aram, who didn’t hesitate. We were very lucky to get flights and book rooms in short order. 
Robyn and I got there first. Aram arrived hours later. We found each other in the lobby of our hotel, a couple of old men who got to be kids again for a little while. And this is how we came to celebrate Aram’s 63rd birthday in Yerevan after a half century of dawdling.
I’ll have much more to say about our experience in Armenia, but what’s important for now is that we finally had one.

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