We didn’t get off to a roaring start in Armenia. We checked email in the Vienna airport on the way here only to learn that the conference for which we were to be the speakers had been cancelled, or at least drastically downsized to a Saturday afternoon event. Rich was sick Saturday, so I made my way downtown alone to the event, feeling rather bold and brave as I headed out. Through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings I managed to board the wrong bus, then the right bus, exit at the wrong stop, mis-communicate about where I was to the people trying to escort me from bus stop to gathering, and basically arrive bedraggled and frustrated. The event went well, and I decided to treat myself to a very affordable taxi ride home, expecting that to go much more smoothly. This was not to be. Since the taxi driver didn’t really know the neighborhood we’re staying in as well as he’d represented when he wanted to get the fare, and since (I only later learned) several streets in a row have the same name, we roamed the area for a while in the rain and dark before I finally thanked him, paid him and just got out. I was on the verge of tears as I asked people I saw in the streets if I was on the right street. They would launch into a lengthy answer, which I now understand was them saying, “Well, technically yes, you are currently on that street, but which number of it are you trying to be on?” Finally I pulled into a bakery and called my host, who helped me to see that I was just a short walk away. Should have called him sooner, I know, but I could tell I was so close and in typical American style I thought I could figure it out myself. I ended that day weary and frustrated. Between that and the smoke-filled restaurants and a certain glumness that marks the faces of many people in the streets, I frankly found myself wondering why we’d booked ourselves for a three-week stay here. We had done so on the strength of an invitation from a person who has since moved away, so our remaining connections felt tentative.
In addition, language was a bigger barrier than we had anticipated. I did pretty well with the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet, but the Armenian one, with its 39 letters, has me beat. Guessing at the letters does little good: notice how the two letters that look like a t here are variations on an e sound, the u is an s, and the s-looking letter…what else? A t sound.
Even when written out in English script, many Armenian phrases just frankly take more syllables than seems strictly necessary. I picture a poker game with Armenians outbidding English speakers for length of words: “Ha! We see your measly two-syllable ‘Thank You’ and raise you to ‘Schnorhakal em.’ We see your ‘Bye’ and raise you to ‘Hatchogouchon.’ ‘Nice to meet you?’ Hmph. That’s really the best you can do? We bid ‘Oorakh em kezi hanteebeloo.’” They win; I lose, as these longer phrases flit through my brain and out again at an alarming rate.
I was starting to ‘walk the red line,’ as we say in InterVarsity cross-cultural training. This phrase comes from our visual teaching tool on how we respond to cross-cultural experiences—if we take the green path, we will appreciate, inquire, extend ourselves, and persevere. The red line is a path of judging and isolating. Here is the diagram we use to show various responses to what we call “The Inevitables” of cross-cultural living:
This diagram calls me to see things from the other’s perspective, to listen and not judge. It involves the humility to admit that this language actually doesn’t owe me an S sound from an S-shaped letter. So, I’ve worked on appreciating this truly amazing nation, including the fact that its complex and beautiful alphabet allowed its leaders to spread Christian faith in their nation in ways that yielded deep devotion for centuries.
So, though the start was rocky, Armenia has steadily grown on me, and God is powerfully at work in this land. A few highlights:
Hearing Kenell Turyan, a distinguished astrophysicist and deeply committed Christian who was briefly in town, lecture on the evidence for a good Creator in our finely tuned universe. Armenia has a fairly large number of Indian medical students, and the IFES group (and the International Church in a strong partnership) has reached out really well to them. They brought many friends, and the room was packed. At dinner afterwards he regaled us with jokes and inspired us with stories of faithfulness during hard times under Soviet oppression of faith. It was truly a privilege to meet him.
We have several more sessions ahead with the Armenian and Indian students. This Saturday is the School of Servant Leadership, for new leaders. We will also lead sessions at the weekly leader’s meeting for each group next week, and will continue to meet with the gifted and deeply committed staff team to encourage them in a time of transition and some needed rebuilding. But our schedule is decidedly lighter than in some places, which has given us time to prep for some future events, and also to see museums that help us understand the proud history of this nation, as well as its painful history of genocide, an event which the US has not acknowledged nearly as well as it should, due to our political alliance with the nation that perpetrated it. Learn more here:
The sheer length of the nation’s history is an archaeologist’s dream: we saw the world’s oldest shoe yesterday! Looks a little like my tennis shoes after a recent hike in Latvia….and I’m guessing its owner had some tougher journeys than last Saturday’s misadventures described above. I’ll leave it at that.
Rich and Lisa Lamb