The language was universal
Making friends and learning the language in Armenia took longer than expected – until the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The house we moved into was huge and beautiful. The neighborhood was supposed to be one of the best in all of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, but it didn't impress me.
Our elegant house was surrounded by an eight-foot wall topped with gleaming metal spikes. The neighboring houses were large, and while many were walled like ours, others were protected by flapping plastic tarps or corrugated metal sheeting that rattled ominously in the wind. Stray dogs roamed streets full of potholes. Soviet-era cars careened down the hill, with no sidewalk separating pedestrians from vehicles.
Across the street was a small cinder-block building, a shop that had been tacked onto the front of a house as an afterthought. The windows of this squat little place were covered with bars. The walls were crumbling, the paint peeling. Two scrawny cats groomed themselves at the entrance.
Every day I walked past this little shop on my way down the hill to work, and the laughter I heard from within seemed directed at me, the foreigner. The metal shop door slammed closed behind customers who exited with loaves of bread tucked under their arms, hurrying past with surreptitious glances.
I couldn't see past the bars and the dusty glass, so I avoided the store, choosing instead to frequent a larger one near my office, even though I had to lug bags of groceries home on a rickety bus.
Then one day, I ran out of bread. I gathered my courage and opened that creaking metal door, squinting into the shadows. Makeshift shelves stretched from floor to ceiling, piled high with candy, shampoo, and flour, among other necessities. A glass case filled with cheese and sausage separated the customers from the cash register. Another glass case, which ran the length of the shop, was filled with ice cream. I stood cautiously near the door, looking for the bread.
The woman behind the counter smiled at me. In Russian, she greeted me: "So you're the new neighbor. We've been expecting you. I'm Anna. Come in, come in."
She called into a back room, summoning the rest of her family from the house for introductions: her white-haired husband, Gevorg; daughter-in-law, Hasmik; three sons; and two small grandchildren, who hid behind their mother.
They all lived together in the house behind the shop, and they ran the store together. They peppered me with questions, all speaking at once in Russian, which I understood, and in Armenian, which I didn't.
It took 30 minutes to get the bread and cross the street again, and in that time, I realized what a fool I'd been to travel across town twice a week when everything I wanted was in that store.
A few days later, I ran out of eggs. I grabbed some change and dashed across the street. This time, Anna introduced me to some of her other customers. It took almost an hour to buy my eggs, as the neighbors lined up to meet me, to ask me about America. These same neighbors had seemed so unwelcoming, hostile even, just one week before.
On my third visit to the store, I confessed that I was studying Armenian. So Anna switched from Russian to Armenian: "What do you need today?" she asked me slowly.
The line behind me grew as I stumbled through my order, but Anna wouldn't let me switch back to Russian. The store grew crowded as my neighbors gathered to cheer me on, laughing good-naturedly at my mistakes, pleased to hear me try.
Soon I began stopping by the store each day to greet Anna and buy a crusty loaf of bread. One day I asked why she almost never took money from anyone, choosing instead to write their totals in a dog-eared book she kept by the register.
Her smile faded. "The people here, they are so poor, so poor. If they can't pay now, I'll give them what they need. Some day, if they have the money, they'll pay me back."
She pulled out her book. "This one here, she's a widow," Anna said. "How will she survive without me?" The widow owed $75, an impossible sum in a country where most don't earn that in a month. "This man lost his job. But he has children to feed. They all have children to feed."
She put the book away, patting it carefully. "Some day, they will pay me. And if they can't, well, I still can't turn them away."
When I had the time, I stood in the store practicing my Armenian with anyone who stopped at the register. My Armenian improved slightly, but it was still a struggle to speak and be understood.
I grew to love this place, so different from home. The people in Anna's store seldom had any money, it's true, yet they weren't poor except in the financial sense of the word. The friends I made were loud and passionate people who shared what little they had with their extended families. Families were close-knit, with several generations under one roof – all pitching in to move each day forward.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I sat in my Armenian house and watched as the faraway events unfolded on my television. I sat all afternoon and into the evening – shocked, unmoving – eyes glued to the TV screen. Although I'd lived overseas for years, I'd never felt quite so far away from home, quite so lost in the middle of nowhere. The life I'd constructed for myself in this land suddenly seemed lonely, and I desperately wanted to be back in America, to grieve with people who understood what had just happened.
The next morning, feeling a bit numb, I ventured out to work, past the flapping plastic tarps and rattling metal fences – all familiar, yet still eerie somehow.
On my way past the store, Anna ran out and stopped me. "We saw your light on last night and wanted to come over," she said, "but we didn't want to disturb you. Oh, I am so, so sad and sorry."
Behind her stood a small clutch of customers, my neighbors, all lined up to offer me their condolences. Some cried when they spoke. They spoke to me in Russian and in Armenian. And I understood.