I love irony. I love it when it bites. I get a kick out of it when it unexpectedly zaps me. I love irony in pretty much every form. And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy my life in Yerevan so very much.
Here, irony lurks in every corner. You experience irony when your taxi driver rants about all the traffic tickets he’s racked up while he talks on his cellphone and smokes throughout the rant; you see irony when the guy who has a monopoly on sugar imports is also the country’s key importer of insulin; you see irony when people complain about “that damn corruption which keeps election bribe rates low.”
As someone born in Tbilisi, Georgia my native language was (perhaps still is) Russian. That’s what most Armenians in Georgia apparently speak. Or at least that’s what I’m told.
Before moving to Armenia in 1990, my family would visit Yerevan every summer and I would invariably be bullied as the “Russian kid.” In fact, I was teased for being “Russian” so often that I actually thought I was Russian. Imagine my utter disbelief and shock when kids in Moscow, where I lived in 1994, called me “the foreigner.”
But back to the political line (yes, there is one).
As a child in Yerevan, among my arch nemeses were kids who prided themselves on being more Armenian than I was. I did not argue. In fact, I couldn’t agree more. Sure, I liked Yerevan and my ridiculously large extended Armenian family, Armenian food and Tumanyan tales but, hey, these guys were born here.
“Sergey is not Armenian. He doesn’t even have an Armenian name,” Vlad, who lived on my grandmother’s street would say. And so I felt I was not a true Armenian. Just like Vlad said.
At some point I started to grow and began to absorb all things Armenian. I even learned the Armenian alphabet. Apparently it was a must at Armenian schools. I learned literature, history, the ability to ask annoying personal questions to strangers and even the “bulb dance” (you know it if you’ve seen any Armenian party where at least one person dances).
I was teased for being “Russian” so often that I actually thought I was Russian.
But I was still the Russian kid.
“There’s something Russian in your accent. I really hate it,” my English teacher would say wickedly as she looked into my non-Armenian-like hazel green eyes. The irony was her pronunciation: “Zer iz samsing Rashn...” I never responded to the question, “Do you even know who Mesrop Mashtots is?” I thought it would be rude to spoil their perception of me.
Vlad and his friends continued to exult in their Armenianness in the courtyard and beyond. It usually took the form of boys from different neighborhoods beating the living shit out of each other. I was not welcome to participate in those gang fights - again, not sufficiently Armenian. I actually liked this perk though.
Armenia was changing fast and despite my Russian accent, it gained independence in 1991. Then came the cold, dark and unfriendly years that lasted for most of the 90s. That is, until 1998 when I graduated high school with high marks in Armenian language. However, apparently I scored high marks in Armenian “just to artificially make up for my lack of Armenianness.” Or so I was told.
I continued to compensate for my insufficient Armenian while at university. I would hike around the country almost every weekend with a student hiking group and would absorb every sight and learn every story of Armenia. Obviously none of that helped me become as Armenian as Vlad and his gang from my grandma’s neighborhood were, but I tried.
And then one day the elections came calling. I had just reached voting age. A few years before I had reached puberty, but I kept silent about it as I was not sure if it was an Armenian thing to do (I feared it might be linked to the Russian accent). But with voting I knew it was totally okay, since everyone talked about it and shared their plans to secretly vote for the opposition.
I headed to the polling station in the morning. I put a lot of thought into the voting process. I had been watching the candidates, listening to friends and relatives discuss which one had stolen more from the budget and who had caused the country more harm. It was my first time voting so I felt a great burden of responsibility. Huge in fact. I carried the world upon my shoulders. I felt like the future of the country depended on my casting the right vote.
And then I approached the polling station and bumped straight into Vlad.
He looked older and less hostile. In fact, he almost hugged me when we said hello. We had barely begun the small talk when suddenly a minibus drove up and stopped nearby. A group of elderly people started to flow out of the vehicle and made their way to Vlad.
I watched the mesmerizing scene. Vlad was handing something to each of them and “reminding” them of something. Yes, my old childhood “friend,” the very symbol of Armeniannes was doing what could only be perceived as distributing bribes to voters.
Fortunately, the street was noisy so no one heard the sound of my belief system come crashing down around me. All the concepts of what a “proper Armenian” should be collapsed like a house of cards.
Suddenly I felt so much more Armenian than Vlad. Suddenly I realized that I actually care about my country and not a narrow group interest like Vlad represented. I felt like a legitimate shareholder of the country unlike most of the kids from my block who were allegedly brimming with Armenianness.
The scene gave me a sense of relief and liberation.
I took a deep breath, went into the voting booth and got myself a neat Armenian accent.