My uncle had asked me that as he stood above the trench we had been burying pipe in for over the past week, with me working an entire summer in construction.
It would only be in a few more days until I'd finally begin my internship in a world far away. My uncle didn't understand why I'd spend all my summer earnings there.
“You could go to California instead, see the beaches, the girls, hot sun.”
I dug deeper. What he or anyone else in my family couldn’t understand, despite the ridicule and skepticism I endured over the past several months, was that it was easy for me to simply brush it off their questions. I knew better.
What lay waiting for me thousands of miles away across an ocean was Armenia, but I wasn't dreaming of the its cobblestone roads, or pale, dark eyed girls. I wasn't being drawn by the scents of cardamine, dried lavender leaves, or the Eastern perfumes. It was simply the prospect of getting away.
“Where the hell is this country anyway?"
He’d continually ask me that at least once a week until I left.
Armenia, a small country no bigger than the state of Maryland, situated in the mountains between Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East, was a place I'd had my heart set upon seeing for years. Then, once I landed there in the beginning of September, I understood the definition of culture shock. Wandering out of the terminal and being met by big hatted Soviet guards made me feel like I was in a James Bond film.
“Paper’s please,” one of them asked. As I handed him my passport, he asked how long I intended to stay. When I answered, "One year," he pushed his hand into his forehead.
"You can’t stay here that long!” he said angrily.
I had applied to do a law internship In Armenia with an anti-corruption NGO. My other friends had already gone off to internships in New York and the Hague, but I wanted to experience the Soviet hangover first hand.
Sure enough, in Armenia, there plenty of Stalineque buildings that were falling apart, built during the Khrushchev era -- the supposed "golden age" of the Soviet Union. Yet, every once and awhile, when I’d get lost in an alleyway, I’d find a pristine church dating back to the first century that had remained perfectly intact. It appeared that there were just some things that communism -- a doctrine once called religion nothing more than mere opiate -- couldn’t eradicate.
I had often attended church back in Canada. My mother yanking us out of bed early on Sunday mornings, to sit next to angry bald old men and tepid elderly woman in a dusty stale room. But in Armenia, the churches were packed every Sunday. Young couples, my age, with a babies in their arms in hand, crushed up against the doorway, eagerly listening to the priest. And when the choir began to sing, it was as if the clouds had opened up, and heaven itself began to speak. It was only then, in such teary eyed moments, that I began to realize how far away from home I was.
Last month, the biggest box office film in North America was Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, a film whose heroine thinks monogamy is an unrealistic illusion. Yet walking down the sidewalks in this former communist country, I saw young couples my age with babies in strollers, ever eager to rush home and cook dinner. They and their relatives had lived under tyranny for more than half a century, but they knew something my Canadian experience hadn't taught me. In Canada now, churches don't seem to have the the funds to keep themselves standing. Family and marriage are labeled as something almost medieval, primitive.
Armenia is a long way from being a civil society governed by the rule of law, but unlike Canada, it experienced the true tyranny of the left -- the same values that some in our society and promoting. Look: Canada is the greatest country in the world. If our politicians engage in elicit behaviour, the rule of law will reign them in. The same can’t be said for Armenia, which is governed by the oligarchs and mafia men who seized all the country’s wealth after the Berlin Wall fell. And yet, its grassroots culture, its daily life and in its social values, are all things Canada could learn from. It's ironic that Canada and the rest of the West keeps embracing the same leftist ideology that Armenia struggled to discard.
In this 3-part series, I'll share some of Armenia's culture and those values with you.
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