Lost in Armenia
In the summer of 1984 I was at a conference in Leningrad after which the Academy had invited me to come to Yerevan to work in the museum and to see the Urartian excavations. The conference ended on a Friday afternoon and all the participants were looking forward to a weekend of partying and getting to know each other better. However, my academy liason, a young man who spoke excellent French came by in the afternoon before the last meeting of the conference, took me aside and said: You’re going to Yerevan tomorrow morning! I suggested that maybe it would be better if I went Monday with the Armenian archaeologists, since the whole point was that they should show me around. No, he said, you are not here to go to parties! Whether the Armenian archaeologists go back today, tomorrow or Monday is of no concern to me. Here is your ticket – a small piece of paper which looked exactly like a bus ticket was stuck in my hand – and he said, our driver will pick you up tomorrow morning at 7, you are going on an Intourist plane at 11 and somebody will pick you up at the Yerevan airport – we aren’t going to leave you in the street even if the archaeologists are here! You are going to stay at a hotel called Ani, a representative from the academy will be at the airport and take you to the hotel. There was absolutely no arguing possible with this man, he made that very clear.
The next morning a driver in a very fancy official car was waiting for me a few minutes after 7—I got in and off he went as if pursued by demons – my Russian is very limited and I didn’t know how to say: Please slow down! So across Leningrad we raced – luckily there really wasn’t any other traffic to speak of early Saturday morning – and we arrived at the airport in no time at all. He barely waited for me to get out of the car before he took off in an even greater hurry.
I walked into the airport and almost immediately saw a desk: FOREIGNERS – I walked up to the desk, asked the lady whether she spoke English (she did) and told her that I was supposed to go to Yerevan later in the morning – she said: Yerevan! You’re late! Come with me! – She grabbed my bag and started running through corridors toward the back of the airport – I ran after her (she had my bag) – out through the back door we arrived at the tarmac where a plane was starting up the engines and the stairs were being pushed away.
She gesticulated and shouted something to the people on the ground, the stairs were put back, I was given my bag and told to hurry up – the door was opened and I was inside.
The door closed, a very puzzled stewardess looked at me, and directed me to the back of the plane which was completely full – except, at the very back there was a seat which didn’t have a person in it, just two enormous lampshades – I was pushed into the seat, the lampshades were put on my lap – I looked in vain for a seat-belt – but we were already taking off, and there was no seat belt.
When I opened my eyes again and caught my breath I looked around – the plane was full of people, all with market baskets jammed in front of them – mostly empty, but some full of packages – including more lampshades, even bigger than the ones I was holding – and everybody was talking – not in Russian to be sure – it wasn’t Turkish either, so I asked my neighbor, a large lady (and the owner of my lampshades) Yerevan? She nodded and I thought: Fine, I may be on an earlier plane – but at least I am going to the right place.
Everybody on the plane wanted to know who I was, and in spite of my vocabulary of only 25 Russian words and 0 Armenian, we established that I was Danish, archaeologist, that I was married and had 5 children in the USA. More than that was not possible due to lack of language (until that moment I had thought it would be sufficient to speak nine Western European languages and a bit of Arabic – I did not admit that I could speak Turkish, since I was not sure that would be appreciated). I was offered various snacks – peaches that hadn’t been sold, bastirma, bread and water by my kind neighbor who obviously was prepared for going on long airplane rides with no services of any kind.
Eventually, I am not sure how many hours later since my watch had inconveniently stopped, we landed in Yerevan – I was one of the last people to come out, still clutching the lampshades. It was a sunny, warm afternoon – the lady’s son came to fetch her, took the lampshades and they were gone. After a few minutes – I was still standing in the middle of the tarmac with my bag, looking very much out of place – two soldiers approached me. As soon as they had established that I was neither Armenian nor Russian, which took less than a minute, they took me to the other end of the airport explaining that I had to go to the foreign office.
We arrived at a much smaller building where an official was shouting orders in Armenian and Arabic to a group of people who were boarding a plane to Aleppo. Oh good! I thought, at least this man speaks Arabic, maybe he can help clear up all this confusion? After he had sent the Aleppo plane off, he came back to the office to ask me what I was doing there – I explained (my Arabic is not that fluent, but we managed) that I was supposed to be picked up, but that I imagined I had come on an earlier plane than scheduled! And maybe he could call the Academy to let them know that I had arrived already. He consulted with various lists and finally told me – you are early! You have to sit down and wait! I cannot call anybody – all offices are closed Saturday afternoon, you can just sit down and wait – you are not supposed to arrive until 8 o’clock tonight, so you have to wait!
I looked at the clock on the wall – it said 3:30 – my own watch had stopped – and by now I was totally confused about time: Moscow time, Leningrad time, Yerevan time who could tell which was what? The man clearly wanted to go home and have lunch – so did I for that matter, but I decided to go outside, sit in the sun and smoke cigarettes, while he was trying to get rid of me somehow.
I sat on the steps, looked at Mount Ararat, more beautiful in reality than on photographs, and smoked two cigarettes. Three men were standing next to a pickup truck in front of the building discussing something, but they became curious and came up to me to ask me who I was and where I was going and whether I was American – I just said yes – having by now given up explaining my presence and other particulars. Are you going to Yerevan? -- Inshallah, I hope so was my response. Ok, they said hop into the truck we’ll take you! – Off we went – I saw my Arabic-speaking official waving his hands, yelling something in the back mirror, but we were off! At a fork in the road it said Yerevan to the right, we, however, went to the left, up the mountain road until we arrived in a village, where my newly found friends roused a relative from his afternoon siesta. He had been to Chicago, cooking kebab and pizza in his cousin’s restaurant and he spoke English as well as I spoke Russian. Off we went again, this time toward Yerevan at breakneck speed. They pointed out a number of sights on the way and dropped me outside the hotel Ani (which they miraculously knew) – I told them to come in with me and have tea or something, but they adamantly refused and took their leave.
I walked in, told the French-speaking receptionist, who I was and waited for the by now familiar refrain: You are early! After some negotiations between her, me and the hotel manager, it was decided that I could have my room now (even if I wasn’t supposed to be here for another 4 hours!) – I asked whether I could have something to eat – by now I was truly hungry – but was told that the dining room was closed for the afternoon! But I was taken to a room, which had a private bathroom with a bathtub, so I took a bath, changed clothes and decided to go find something to eat somewhere else.
As I came out of my room, a French tour group was assembled in front of the elevators so I went out with them (hoping they were going to dinner). As it turned out, they were all going into a giant tour bus parked around the corner. I walked toward the center of town (which had been pointed out to me by my pickup truck friends) and soon found myself in a lovely square with a fountain in the middle and cafes all around. I was taken into a café kitchen – due to language difficulties again – and ate a splendid late lunch outside, watching the little kids taking a swim in the fountain, while their parents were drinking coffee nearby.
It was getting dark, the families were all going home, and I decided that I better go back to the hotel. As I entered, the receptionist shouted: La voila! And a very worried looking man came up to me saying: My name is Levon Abrahamian. My colleague and I have been looking for you for hours! – Yes, I said, I was early!
Needless to say, Levon made very sure that I did not have any chance of disappearing again while I was in Armenia.