Letter 29: The Neighbour’s Family

Sunday, June-28-09
When we first bought our house in 2003, one neighbour, in his early fifties, did not seem too happy to have us as his new neighbours. He had been using the abandoned house to store his beehives in the winter and he guarded the orchard like his own.
Their house was down the hill from us. His eldest daughter, Armenouhi, had married Tigran and moved to Aghavnadzor, the village on the mountain across from us on the west side of the old Silk Road. His son Armen had just married Lusineh, from Mozrov, another village that we can also see from our house, which is very close to the Nakhijevan border. They had a new-born baby and lived with the parents, together with a younger daughter, Hamovik, who was finishing high school.
At the time, our neighbour had offered to do all the work to finish our house, but when we visited his house and saw the poor state of repair and finishing, we diplomatically declined. I learned at the time from his wife, Nshkhar, that some “diasporan benefactor” had loaned (through a local bank) a group of women money to buy a mother sow to produce piglets. The sow had died and Nshkhar and the other women were stuck with the debt. Nshkhar asked me if she really had to pay the debt, given that it was from a benefactor. Needless to say that they struggled with that debt and paid interest on it. At that time, I took everything I was told with a grain of salt, having heard so many stories and warnings about lending people money. But when Our neighbour asked for funds to pay for Hamovik’s university tuition, promising to return the money in three months, I gave it to him, no receipt, no promissory note, just a gentlemen’s agreement. He paid me back three years later by building and finishing our wood floor, and what a superb job that was!

Our neighbour is a ‘character’. At first, he could not understand why we would not tolerate anyone smoking in our house. I have noticed recently, however, that now he does not smoke in his own house. Our neighbour is also a great craftsman. There isn’t a thing that we brought from Canada that broke that he couldn’t figure out and fix, better than before. It was the same with Armen. I was told by his former teachers that he had been a very poor student at school. (His parents blamed it on a head concussion he had in an accident a few years back, when he was hit by a speeding vehicle on the Silk Road while herding the neighbourhood flock. But I slowly realized he had a knack for figuring out how mechanical things fit together. He and his father took apart anything from water pumps to automatic door hinges to fancy flush toilets and installed them for us, although they had none of these gadgets themselves. For example, when we broke our flimsy spring-loaded shower-curtain rod, we bought a new one and broke it again. Armen fixed them both five years ago and they are still up.

Lusineh, Armen’s young spouse, is to me the ideal Armenian wife. She looks after her children with devotion, is always welcoming with a lovely smile, and works side by side with her mother in law and the rest of the family.

Then there’s Hamovik. Now 25, still single, she’s bubbly and beautiful like a rising sun. She’s the one they sent to university in Yerevan and went into debt for. Some anonymous Ottawa benefactors had given us money to help Armenia and we used some of it to provide her with a partial scholarship to cover her tuition during the last two of her four years. She studied economics and bank management and graduated two years ago, but the only job she could find was night cashier in one of those supermarkets in Yerevan. She could hardly make ends meet working 48 hours over a seven-day-week. She is now back in Yeghegnadzor and was able to find a job as a Manager in the University’s new Youth Centre. It pays less than in Yerevan, but at least she lives at home and has no high rent to pay. Hamovik is the one who convinced me, when we first arrived, that the mountain we saw from our living room window was actually Ararat (Masis). She took me to a different spot a few hundred meters away from where one could clearly see Sis in addition to Masis.

Despite their skills and some loans, our neighbour and his son Armen could not make ends meet in Yeghegnadzor, and I can testify that they worked day and night. I would wake-up sometimes at three in the morning and, while taking a short walk outside, I could see their basement workshop light on and hear their wood-working machines running. In 2006, Armen was called to work for a contractor in Ukraine. I gave him a warm jacket for the winter and off he went. A few months later we realised that he had been led astray, the job he was offered had not materialised and although he worked at odd repair jobs on the side and was too proud to return broke, his parents had to ultimately go into more debt for his ticket back. Yet, he went again last year, this time with his father, to Yakutia, in Arctic Russia. Apparently they were more successful this time, and although they had to return because our neighbour’s stomach ulcer acted up, they had managed to earn a few hundred dollars more than they had invested to go to Yakutia.

If you ever think that it is Western Armenian Diaspora money that keeps Armenia afloat, think again. It is people like our neighbour and his son who go regularly to slave in Russia and send remittances home. Sometimes, some of these migrant workers give up on Armenia and marry a Russian girl and never return. But most of those I know return home to their families.

With the money they made in Yakutia, this family’s males were able to pay off some of their debts and buy a second cow for their family. (Armen keeps telling me he will pay back the Principessa&General Fund loan… I am still waiting).
With the two cows now, next time you visit us, we will never run out of fresh milk, madsoun (Armenian delicious yogurt), butter or cheese. You should taste the freshness of the “alani panir” that I buy from Nshkhar regularly. It is like fresh ‘bocconcinis’. I have it with mountain honey in the morning for breakfast, and I put it with several of my tomato-based salads that have some of the subtle aromas of the Kanachis, the mixed fresh green herbs that are always present on Armenian tables.
It was when I wanted to see for myself the hygienic conditions under which the cheese from unpasteurised milk that I ate everyday was produced, that I realised that Nshkhar could not use the extra whey and was giving it away. She told me, had she owned a sow, she could feed the whey to it.

I had just heard from a benefactor couple in Toronto that they wanted their fund to be used for helping women entrepreneurs. So I helped Nshkhar prepare a business plan and the following picture is “worth a thousand words”. Except that I had to delete it, to protect these peoples' identity.
Photo of: Nshkhar, the sow, Lusineh and Armen (deleted)
(The names in this story have been altered to protect their identity and respect their privacy)
April 23, 2010: There is however a happy epilogue to this story. The sow in the photo that I deleted has reproduced and is living happily with the piglets, looking at Ararat. Here is their photo, also worth a 1000 words:

Antoine S. Terjanian
Went there to attract rainbows
to read all my letters from Armenia, open http://lettersfromArmenia.blogspot.com