Voyage to the Motherland II: July 2016

by meleeneh on September 23, 2016

This summer, our family had an adventure in Armenia and Georgia. It’s been 9 years since I blogged about my first Voyage to the Motherland. After spending this July there, I realized so much had changed since 2007, yet so much hadn’t. One thing I can tell you that didn’t change (and oh, do we miss it on the daily basis) was the quality, depth of taste, and simplicity of the fresh fruit and vegetables (and the café glases). 😉

The last time Argam was in the Motherland as a tourist was 2006, but since then, he has visited a handful of times because of PicsArt. We did not intend to visit all of the major tourist sites on this trip as we had done so on our previous trip; our main objective was to celebrate the Christening of our son and submerge ourselves into the daily life of Yerevan. Reflecting back on the trip, I’d say that’s exactly what we did…plus a little more.

First week of July 2016

We arrived in Armenia on July 4. This was our first time traveling with a toddler internationally, and we definitely learned a lot along the way. We had decided not to book a separate seat for Mihran because he is still under 2 years of age; however, we quickly learned that he was too big for the bassinet provided by the airline and that he was more comfortable sleeping in his own seat. We were so lucky that the stewardess on Air France helped reorganize the seating so that we had an entire row to ourselves, one seat for each of us. Mihran loved it (and so did we)!

Our first week in Yerevan was spent adjusting to the 12-hour time change (the hardest part of the trip, I admit), settling into what would be our home for the next 4 weeks, an apartment on Hyusisayin (Northern Avenue), and finalizing details for Mihran’s Christening. We couldn’t have done the latter without the help (and often times, translation help) of my second cousin, Lina, and PicsArt General Manager, Gourgen, who accompanied us to various vendors to ensure that our special day would turn out memorably perfect (plus, having a local negotiate is more effective than an American!). When we met with the Hayr Surp Samvel at Haghartsin in Dilijan, he gave us a list of items to bring to the Christening, including dzet (olive oil) and red wine. Both items were easy to find and purchase, but we were confused why we had to bring oil, thinking to ourselves, doesn’t the church prep and bless it’s own meron (holy oil)? When we asked locals, they were just as confused as we were. On the day of the Christening, we learned that these were offerings you make to the church and to God. For example, you can also offer flour, which is used to make the nshkhark (holy Communion). Light bulb!

During this week, we also had the honor of visiting the PicsArt office at the TUMO Center, making us so proud of the work that Argam and the company are doing. My initial reaction was, “Am I Silicon Valley?” I couldn’t believe how impressive the site was, and the programs that they offer to the youth (for free) are admirable. Day by day, our family from the US trickled into Yerevan, and before we knew it, we were in week 2.

Second week of July 2016

Week 2 was centered around celebration; it was Argam’s dad’s birthday (celebrated in the beautiful Tsirani Restaurant, 20 minutes outside of Yerevan), my mom’s birthday (celebrated at Dolmama Restaurant in Yerevan), Mihran’s Christening (celebrated in Dilijan, 1.5 hours outside of Yerevan), and my 35th birthday (celebrated at the Zulal concert and at The Club Restaurant in Yerevan). After having been there for a week or so at this point, the most apparent and newest revelation both Argam and I had was the convenient accommodations and love for children. Mihran felt right at home, and everyone, familiar or stranger, old or young, and male or female, welcomed him with hugs and warm wishes. One awesome example of great accommodations for children was the play areas that were built into most of the restaurants. Thus, we were able to enjoy our meals without Miro being trapped and uncomfortable in a high chair; he would play, grab a bite or two, go back to playing, grab a bite or two, and the cycle would continue. He was the happiest camper! One other revelation related to children was that high chairs and changing tables are scarce, so parents traveling to Armenia with a little one, heads up. Oh, and forget car seats. Lap baby all day, everyday.

The baptism ceremony was held at Haghartsin Monastery. Mihran was a real trooper during the ceremony, enjoying his time with his godfather, Shaunt, and all of his family. He only cried once when the priest poured water on him, but that’s because the water was ice cold (straight from the mountain). Otherwise, he enjoyed all of the intricacies of the ceremony, especially when he received the Holy Communion. “Mmmm, hatseek (yummy bread),” was his response. Our intimate gathering at the beautiful and nature-engulfed reception hall at Getap Hotel was filled with speeches, toast after toast, dancing, and a surprise birthday cake for my mom. All of the elements of the day came together as if we had been planning the event for over a year, but in true Armenia fashion, we pulled together a memorable and fantastic event in a little over a week (which my planner self would normally have a panic attack over). Our vendors were superb and we thank them endlessly: Lilit Margaryan (Mihran’s custom made Christening outfit), Lumen Wedding Photography (video and photo), Mon Ami (florist), Papaya (cake), Getap Hotel and Restaurant (reception hall and catering), DJ Vazgen (music), and Lia Arutynova (invitation and guestbook).

Third week of July 2016

After we had recovered from the week-long celebration train, it was time for our first excursion, Tbilisi, Georgia. The drive from Yerevan is about 6 hours, depending on the road you take. When our driver arrived in Yerevan, he gave us two route options. He asked us, “Which way do you want to go?” With a toddler in the car, our natural response was, “Get us there as fast as you can.” Barely having left Yerevan, Mihran got car sick…multiple times. We asked the driver to drive less aggressively so that his stomach would settle. After several hours had passed at this pace, the driver told us that there was one part of the journey that he would have to drive especially fast. Why? The highway would loop into Azerbaijan, during which we may get shot at by an Azerbaijan village. Oh…that’s all?! As we found this out and were still in shock, Argam looked on his phone to find that this was one of two places that the US Embassy discourages all tourists to pass through, and that’s exactly where we were headed. Lucky us! Did we get shot at? No (thank God), but you can be sure that we took the alternate route on our return to Yerevan. And actually, the alternate route through the Lori region was breathtaking. But before I share about trip back to Yerevan, I will share more about Tbilisi.

The stark difference between Georgia and Armenia becomes apparent as soon as you reach border patrol. Customs in Georgia are located in a nice, new, air-conditioned building with a duty-free shop. Customs on the Armenia side was a small toll booth outside. The infrastructure and surroundings of Georgia are more impressive, advanced, and established than Armenia, largely due to the economic aid it has received from the US and other countries. The tourist and residential population of Georgia is much more diverse than Armenia’s as well. Some of the population is able to understand Armenian, but the Georgian language dominates, even amongst the Armenians in Georgia.

Tbilisi is divided into Old Town (our preference) and New Town. Our hotel was smack in the middle, making walking around in the city even easier. I can say that the cobblestone paths of Old Town were not stroller-friendly, so we ditched our stroller after the first day. During our two days there, we explored Nagala Fortress which had fantastic views of the city, (former) Armenian churches, the monument dedicated to Sayat Nova, sulfur bathhouses, and lots of cafes. We ate khingali and khatchapouri at almost every meal; we were obsessed! Honestly, although the surroundings were more beautiful than Yerevan, we all agreed that the friendliness and warmth of the Armenian people are unmatched. There is much more to explore in Georgia, but we were happy we did a deep dive into Tbilisi.

Fourth week of July 2016

By the time our last week rolled around and our parents had departed, we were back to exploring Yerevan. While Argam was at work, I took Mihran to an amazing daycare on two occasions, where the superb care was 1:1. Mihran and I also had lots of lunch and napping dates. I visited the Roche office in Yerevan and met with the wonderful women who work there. We also visited the Tsitsenakpert Genocide Memorial and GUM spice market, said goodbye to our local friends and family, and visited our favorite restaurants one last time (Anteb, you’re the top contender). By the time our journey was coming to an end, we were fully feeling like locals. We would see and greet familiar locals on the street throughout our day, at restaurants, or at the market. The streets of Yerevan grew more familiar as we got a better sense of where everything was in relation to one another (and we had to stop looking at Google Maps), our vocabulary skyrocketed (including Mihran’s), and we embraced the Armenian way.

Not only had we changed over the course of one month, our surroundings did as well. At first, there were fewer tourists, and most of them were from Iran. The mountain sides were full of vibrant flowers of purple, orange, and yellow. The weather was cooler, and the wind and hail storms were more frequent. Over the course of the next weeks, diaspora tourists and the temperature increased on a daily basis. The mountain sides turned to shades of pale grey and brown. Peaceful protests against the local government transformed into violent protests in front of our eyes. In reflection, it’s amazing how much Armenia and we had changed over the course of 9 years, but more amazing how much Armenia and we had changed over the course of 4 weeks…and yet, neither Armenia nor we had changed at our core level.

If you are traveling to Armenia for the first time (with or without a child), we have great recommendations (and learnings) to share, not only about accommodations and food, but also planning an event in an international country and submerging a toddler into a new environment. We are happy to share anytime!

Hayastan, karotank kez (Armenia, we miss you)!

Highlights from our trip are captured below. Enjoy!

Click here to view these pictures larger

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