Imagine a Metro Station.
Picture this for a moment: the dark sundry tunnels of the Garegin Nzhdeh metro. If you have never been to Yerevan, or even Armenia, well, I suppose you shall just have to come and visit or my description will be lost on you.
It is very much like any other metro station in Yerevan, when you have descended the initial grey slab stairs, you will be greeted by a mutiny of bouquets, some taller than most toddlers, as well as various tourist brick-a-brack: chess sets, crucifixes, key-rings, backgammon boards, wooden pomegranates, daraz handbags with Armenian Barbies. When you break through the initial bustle, practicality floods the senses with various tiny rooms containing tailors, key-cutters, cobblers, barbers. Finally, when you suck in the air and the light, just before the metro entrance- with your orange plastic token in hand- you will find the grey Soviet cement awash with life. You will hear the haggling of tatik gaggles, the clatter of backgammon pieces and professional mumbling arising from the hunched backs of men, taking respite from manning their stalls, and see the platoons of wild dogs on the cement tiles, the most genial warriors who conduct their watch with both eyes closed.
Picture amongst all the bustle, a solitary gambolling figure. Waterproof trousers whistling as they wandered past the clatter of the snooker hall, past the fresh produce and flower stalls, past the various vintage wares. A WHS trowel hooked into their belt loop, the stomp of steel plates weighing down their toes, head-bobbing to the sounds of Al-Elnim contained within their headphones, the suave visage of Hamlet Minassian peering out from their T-shirt, and the gait of an awkward outsider.
Yes, dear reader, that was me. Drenched in Urartian dust, I absolutely did not belong, yet Armenia has this way of making you feel so knitted into its very fabric. I walked every day through the stalls, avoiding eye contact fiercely and incurring premature deafness from my music. Yes, walking backwards and forwards from an ex-Soviet rubbish dump may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but personally those were the brightest mornings of my life. My experience excavating at Shengavit solidified my interest in archaeology from tuff to steel. From befriending the brutal guard dog, Mickey, with sausages, discussing the exploits of Schliemann, belting Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, being near suffocated by mild wind, and being shown on Armenian television throwing dust at a cameraman, I will be eternally grateful to the AVC Junior Corps for this experience…
But this was only two weeks out of three months! I also excavated at Metsamor, edited a book for the Erebuni museum on Urartian history, edited articles for the Matenadaran, and helped translate and edit the poetry of Komitas with the Komitas Museum-Institute. I had a ridiculously, almost self-indulgently good time in Armenia. I must admit, it was a long-awaited experience.
For six months, the Armenian flag had been hanging in my room at the university. I remember closing my eyes and listening to the Divine Liturgies of Komitas, allowing myself to be pulled from my bed and suspended in midair. Everyone, friends, family, tutors alike, were very confused by this desire to go to a country that I had no family connection to. I had never met anyone from Armenia or who had visited Armenia. I would babble on excitedly about the language, the films, the literature, the religion, the history, the culture, the food to my beleaguered parents who, with a slight eyebrow raise and a heavy dollop of side-eye, would ask:
“Can’t you just go to Italy instead?”
Anyone who knows me well is very familiar with how stubborn I am. Once I get an idea in my head, there is absolutely no shaking it, unless it is impossibly stupid and unattainable. My application to the AVC was a gushing polemic on Komitas and my interview, in which I gestured to the various images of Komitas I had stuck up on my walls, solidified how much the program was meant for me. I remember distinctly the quote I led my application with-
“I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an ‘Ararat’ sense, the sense of an attraction to a mountain.”
That Mountain Sense.
Anyone can develop this “Ararat sense”, that much has become clear to me now.
My hobbies are now entrenched by those three months, my future is tightly woven, my days are full of editing for the Erebuni Museum, even though I am 2337 miles away. Though I despise buckwheat, I find myself longing for a table full of herbs, glasses full of peach compote or sea buckthorn, and a plate seeping with brine pickles. My Saturdays now feel incredibly boring without jaunts to Khor Virap, Geghard monastery, Amberd fortress, Mantash Waterfall, The Temple of Garni… These excursions are where I met my people. Now I cannot picture a coach without loud duduk music playing in the background.
I cannot express how proud I am to be an alumna. I cannot wait to see my host family again, my arms laden with Manchester United merchandise and British tea. I cannot wait to excavate again, to be scrubbing Urartian dust from in-between my toes, and I cannot wait to see the friends I have made next year, in the city that brought us together.
Hayastan will always be a part of my life.
I found my future in Armenia, I found my joy in Armenia, and I found my soul in Armenia.
I fully intend to revisit this country I love so dearly, again and again and again, with the person I now call hokis by my side.
Eloise Peniston is a medievalist studying at the University of Oxford. During her internships, she worked at the Matenadaran, the Komitas Museum-Institute, the Erebuni Museum, and with the Polish-Armenian Expedition. She is currently managing The Vishap Project, a compendium