Postcard from Armenia: American journalism meets Armenian hospitality

Postcard from Armenia: American journalism meets Armenian hospitality

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The minute hand of the ministry clock in Yerevan’s imposing Republic Square was inching dangerously close to my interview deadline as I barreled through the glass doors of the government building. “Five minutes to go,” I gasped to my colleague who had kindly offered her services as translator. We charged toward two bored-looking guards standing behind a low wooden counter.

“Window number three,” the guards said, waving us over to a series of cubicles separated by thick panes of glass. A group of women huddled around window number one and spoke animatedly to the employee on the other side.

Window number three was, of course, deserted.

I shifted impatiently and looked at my watch. Three minutes before my first appointment with a government official. After my experience in a U.S. newsroom, where drained coffee cups, furrowed brows, and frantic glances at the clock were the first symptoms of a looming deadline, I had been relishing the relatively stress-free environment of working as a journalist in Armenia.

And while journalists in the U.S. are usually greeted with the enthusiasm one reserves for the likes of mosquitoes or bed bugs, in Armenia I soon came to realize that hospitality reigns supreme.

During my first interview, I had hesitantly picked up the phone. “Do. You. Speak. English?” I said, enunciating every word. The phone got passed down the chain of command until it reached an English-speaking person.

I held my pen poised over my notebook, preparing to scribble down an interview date sometime in the hazy future.

“Is in an hour OK?” the woman on the other end asked. “Today?” I stammered, certain some linguistic locution such as “Maybe next year” or “Never” had somehow been lost in translation.

The woman I met for that first interview greeted me warmly. We crossed the busy streets of Yerevan and entered a quiet courtyard. The sound of children playing in a nearby kindergarten echoed across a dilapidated playground. A jungle gym stood rusty and abandoned, overgrown with weeds. The building we entered could have used a fresh coat of paint, but the office was bright and cheerful.

“Tea or coffee?” the woman asked as she ushered me in. Despite the stifling summer heat which wafted into the room through an open window, two people were already seated, eager to answer my questions.

My next interview was no different. “Any time,” the head of a department at the city university said jovially as we scheduled a meeting. When I arrived at his office, harried and five minutes late after stumbling along the forlorn and almost deserted hallways, he pulled over a chair for me and began rummaging in a large cupboard, emerging triumphantly with a red and white box of pralines. “Italian,” he said with a smile.

And chocolates and coffee have not been the only tokens of hospitality. A certain number of interviewees have also become my most fervent well-wishers. Of course people in the U.S. have been well-disposed toward the journalistic profession as well—a Baptist minister once prophesized I would write a best-seller and a dog whisperer said I had good dog karma—but nothing seems to rival Armenian generosity of spirit.

In my third interview, an elderly woman, her hair held back by a white plastic headband, smiled benignly at me. “I hope you find a good husband and may you have many, many children,” she said as our conversation came to an end. She hesitated, wondering how to further hone her prediction of connubial bliss. “And may your husband not be an alcoholic,” she beamed as she left the room.

Back at the ministry, I glanced at my watch. Two minutes.

I imagined my interviewee, dressed in a frayed gray Soviet-era uniform tapping his foot impatiently as he puffed at his cigar—an imposing figure with a moustache and wild wisps of hair, a curious mix between Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro. I was fairly certain tardy U.S. journalists were not at the top of his list of favorite people.

An ancient woman, her shoulders hunched, shuffled in our direction. Dragging her feet across the marble floor, she maneuvered her way to the front of the line, her head barely reaching the pane of glass over the counter.

A door opened at the back of the cubicle and an efficient-looking office worker made her way over to window number three. The elderly woman began a garbled discussion in a low, raspy voice as she shoved a piece of paper through an opening in the glass pane. The employee shoved the paper back and shook her head. The elderly woman shuffled away.

One minute.

My colleague stepped toward the window and handed over our passports. She greeted the employee politely and smiled. I clutched my notepad and pen in a vise-like grip. One thing was certain: You don’t hurry in Armenia. The woman behind the glass calmly slid a drawer open and pulled out two light blue visitor’s passes.
Thirty seconds.

The woman was still holding my passport. “Luuuu-pieeeeee-riiiiii,” she read my last name aloud, slowly sounding out the foreign syllables. I nodded enthusiastically and imagined banging my head against the pane of glass.

Passes in hand, we dashed through the somber circular hall, lined with offices and closed doorways, toward the elevator. The rusty metal doors snapped shut behind us and the dimly lit elevator creaked and groaned its way upward. With a final shudder, it came to a halt and the doors jerked open. We rushed to the office and knocked at the door.

I glanced at my watch. We were two minutes late.

The grey-haired woman who greeted us with a friendly smile was neither wearing a uniform nor did she resemble Stalin. Mental note for future reference: always double-check whether Armenian first names are male or female.

“I’m so sorry we’re late,” I stammered.

The official glanced in our direction with a curious look of amusement and waved my apologies away with a flourish of her hand.

“Tea or coffee?” she said.

Chicago-based journalist Sigrid Lupieri is spending her summer in Armenia and will periodically be sharing her impressions.