I try to explain to others that a fear of heights and a fear of falling are not the same thing. High places don’t frighten me, but the prospect of falling from a high place does. This is how I was justifying my fear to myself in the back seat of an American SUV as we ascended into the mountains of the dreamlike Lori Province. I had made the error of sticking my head out of the window for a better look. There was very little road visible beneath us. Instead, I saw a several-thousand foot drop and was confronted with the sound of gravel crunching and centuries of mountain eroding under us. I prayed we would not have to make a u-turn to get back down.
I was on my way, with three far more adventurous friends, to see a waterfall-or-something which someone had lightly referenced and had offered imprecise directions to. My friend at the wheel pulled up at a picnic area and lowered his window to ask a family how we could find our way to this fabled waterfall. We didn’t know the name, the general location, and we weren’t even certain of its existence. They seemed confused by our question and even more baffled by our quest. They told us that we might find what we were looking for if we continued uphill and turned sharply onto the narrower road, but they suggested that we forget the whole thing and join them for lunch instead.
We declined, thanked them, and continued uphill. We followed their directions, but eventually reached a point where it was too dangerous to continue. It didn’t look like any cars had ventured there before. We turned back and saw the same group. This time, they all motioned, “Come!” So we did. We parked and made our way toward them. A woman sprang up, collected a few used styrofoam plates, and began washing them in the stream. I was overwhelmed; something that might have signified poverty to me in America had suddenly become a gesture of the purest hospitality. They questioned and fed us, both endlessly.
And then came the shots. 120 proof home-bottled vodka poured into mismatched and chipped Armenian coffee cups. There was a toast said for everything until we were all so happy that we could not control our foolish expressions.
When I summon cheerful memories like this, other thoughts are usually juxtaposed with them. For example, there are those who say we only know how to grieve, or those who ask why our elderly women all wear black—can they all be widows? There are others still who say Armenians only talk of genocide. We talk of genocide out of duty—if we don’t, no one else will.
But that’s not all we are. We are not just bell-ringers of the dead. We can also gather around a table and love strangers with a sense of familiarity and closeness reserved only for family.