A friend of mine went back to Russia about a week ago and another friend of mine is coming back from Russia in a few weeks, or at least he said he was the last time I talked to him. The season changes and people from the CIS countries go back up to Moscow to resume summer work, mostly physical labor, and send the money back home, buy cell phones and other western products that are either really over priced or not available here. My friend Arshack is an exception in that he owns a skatepark in the capital Yerevan, where he hopes that summer will be a higher grossing period than the winter, wherein he had very few customers, other than myself, dropping by on occasion to practice the same tricks that I've been doing for the last eight years or so now.
My friend Hro, who went back, left without much pomp. A few friends and I dropped by his place in the evening, had a barbecue, talked, danced a little and then left, leaving him with an unopened bottle of vodka and two new DVDs, that I don't think he really cared much about. He walked my friend Paige and I back home and we joked a little, dodging open manholes and unmarked trenches in the dark. When we arrived at my apartment, I suddenly realized that I was going to miss what I used to consider his relentless badgering but had come to understand as his means of relating to people.
When I first met Hro about a year and a half ago we would occasionally talk and walk around town together on my days off. It didn't seem to be a big deal to him whether we hung out or not and I found myself appreciating this after having met so many younger kids that would call me 7 or 8 times a day just to ask me where I was and what I was doing. With Hro it seemed simple; we hung out for a little while, had a coffee and then parted ways, really just what I was hoping to do usually. But when I moved out to my own place he began to drop by, it was, after all winter, and he had nothing to do. The problem was that I was really busy, still getting used to my work at the university, and even after seven or eight months, still getting used to being in Armenia. I can remember far too many occasions when I would return home after a long day to start a meal and put on some music (the kind of private activities I had been longing for after seven months of living with two families) when my doorbell would ring, not a normal doorbell either but a screeching racket of an imitation bird call, something I initially thought amusing, but later came to loathe the sound of. Above the sizzle of potatoes and onions and the insufficient tones of my computer's speakers I would hear it, "SKREEEEEEEEEEEE!" and I would shudder, wait a moment to make sure I hadn't mistaken, perhaps it was the neighbor's, but again, like the sound I imagine an Emu or some other huge predatory bird makes before ripping you open with those grizzly talons "SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEE !" held down longer this time as if he sought to ensure me that no, it wasn't the neighbors doorbell, and, yes, he knew I was in there. At this point I would reluctantly head to the door, peep through the peephole, sure enough, standing there brushing snow off his boots.
"Hello, Hro, What doing?" My Armenian still being pretty laughable at this point. And without answering he would come right into my apartment. When he had gotten settled on the couch he would repeat my question back to me as though he hadn't heard.
"What's up, Jon?" Already rubbing his finger all over the touchpad of my computer and looking for songs to play 10 seconds of and then skip to another and another and another while I went back to the kitchen to finish cooking my dinner, knowing that I wasn't going to enjoy it.
At this point you might be thinking that I'm some kind of rude and secluded bastard who has problems relating to people because he likes to hang out alone and mutter to himself like some kind of latter day Golem, but well I'm quite sure that at one point or another, everyone has taken the sociology class that introduces them to the notion of social distance and how this tends to vary between cultures, how for instance, middle eastern men will lean right into your face when they talk to you, and an American will keep backing up, trying to preserve that little bubble of his or her own space. Although I don't recall anyone rubbing noses when they talked with me in Syria, in Armenia there is definitely a notion that your friend and even your neighbor is supposed be social toward you at all times. If there is some loophole that allows you to say you are busy I never found it; such a thing simply isn't done here, or maybe I just never encountered it because I never just showed up at someone's place. Either way I spent about 3 months in minor irritation. It seemed like every time I was in the mood, after a long day, to just hang around and read and relax, that hideous doorbell would blast through my thoughts again, and I'd spend the next two hours, hoping that Hro would get the drift and that I was not really in the mood to talk, but every time he stayed; I would be reading and he'd just go on playing around on my computer as I read the same sentence over and over again. I wasn't trying to be rude, we just didn't have anything else to say to each other. In twenty minutes, at the time, my Armenian was pretty much exhausted, and yeah, I guess I coulda' pantomimed around, but Hro really wasn't the talkative type either. The result was that when he left in March I was kinda' happy he wasn't going to be around to bother me anymore. I had begun to avoid going home just to avoid him. It was becoming ridiculous. Yet, when he called me from Russia about two months later, well, I was happy to talk with him for a minute, perhaps because he was so far away and I knew he wouldn't come barging in my door, but I was also surprised he hadn't forgotten me. Since he spent so much time at my place with my computer, I had begun to wonder if all I had ever been to him was a warm apartment where no one would bother him and an interesting contraption that played foreign music. He call proved otherwise.
When Hro cam back in October I was happy to see him. He had called me maybe once or twice more during the time that he stayed in Russia, and although our conversations were short I was always happy to receive them. When he returned I met up with him in a place that sells lumps of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and filled with what looks and tastes like a mixture of flour and sugar. They're pretty simple these ponchiks, but they're good with coffee in the morning if you're feeling like going back to bed in an hour or two, as after such a large dose of sugar you will inevitably crash later. I was already done working for the day when I met up with Hro for a coffee and ponchik. We talked a little about what he had done in Russia and about the phone that he had bought that he was absolutely blasting music from, some ridiculously large, boxy-looking thing that had what appeared to be a TV antennae sticking out of it. After our meeting we parted and I went back home both happy and already somewhat disconcerted that he was back in town, perhaps indefinitely, as he had said he wasn't sure if he'd be going back to Russia.
It wasn't long before things returned to their previous state, Hro, again deprived of anything better to do, began dropping by and hanging out in my apartment. The only difference was that this time he no longer bothered to ring my doorbell and dispensed altogether with the formality of even knocking at my door. I remember more than a few times he would come in when I was in the bathroom. I would yell "I'm in the bathroom!" and I'd hear him proceed to my couch and soon the music would begin from my computer, sometimes I thought of staying in there to see if he'd go away. Despite finding myself annoyed again with his presence I always tried to be cordial; I'm sure that at times my weariness wore through, but, in truth, he never seemed to notice, or deliberately ignored it. Once, however, I remember, having just returned home. my friend Henni, had called me and we had decided to make something to eat together. She had been in my apartment not more than 2 minutes when suddenly Hro's head popped in the door.
"Ok if I come in?"
"You're already here" I heard myself reply in some unbearably wry tone that certainly was not my own, but rather the accumulation of months of irritation. But I never really had to feel bad about this rude remark because Hro just came in and plopped down next to the computer as if I had responded by saying,
"Why, Hro old fellow, come in and take a load off, there's my computer, all set for the tampering! Knock yourself out!"
He didn't even seem to hear me, just came in and made himself at home as usual. I never understood how he was capable of that. I know there were other time when he must've seen my impatience, but he never seemed to regard it in the slightest, just acted like everything was fine.
After my outburst, I began locking my door. I didn't like to, but I realized, the next time I might say something worse, and for all the irritation Hro caused me, there was something about it that made it difficult to stay angry with him. Although locking my door helped with the spontaneous visits, and even helped me block him at the door, it couldn't stop the phone calls, coming at least 3 times a day. Asking when I was going to come over to his house. I tried to diffuse this be going over there on a number of occasions, thinking that if I came by he would stop asking about it, but it never seemed to matter. I guess, and I hate to say this, it would've been a different story if there had been something to do over there, like eat dinner or work on something, but every time I went over there, we just sat on the couch, hardly conversing while the TV roared on behind us. And several times when he had invited me over I would arrive to find he wasn't even there. I'd call and he'd say "oh, ok you're there, don't go anywhere I'm coming right now." But 'right now' sometimes took as long as 20 minutes and by the time he came I would be ready to go, to get back to my own nest of solitude to think over my lesson plans for the next day and what I was going to do about that class that never listened to me.
There were also the girls. One of the things that made forging any kind of relationship with Hro hard was that he was interested in all the foreign girls I hung out with. He had told me over and over again that he liked foreign girls, almost mentioning it as some sort of consolation, like, because he understood that I had to hang out with them, that he, contrary to other males his age, actually found them intriguing, when actually ever other male in his age group found that equally, if not more intriguing than he did. Whatever his intentions were it always made me feel like a go-between. It seemed like more and more often the only time I would see Hro would be when I was hanging out with one of the three female volunteers in the Yeghegnadzor area. I couldn't help but to feel awkward in these situations because he was forever doing stuff like helping them out of their coats, taking their arms when they had to cross puddles and paying for their drinks, things that always seemed brazen to me, but then I began to wonder if they were so brazen. I couldn't help but to feel like something of a bastard not keeping up with the protocol myself, lagging behind the group like some kind of third wheel while the guy in front of me was constantly reaching over to help my friend down stairs and around construction area heaps of dirt. I began to wonder, "should I be doing those things?" After all these were my friends he was helping along, I had known them longer, was it more my responsibility than his to offer them my coat if they complained of the cold? Sometimes, I even felt like something of a spurned boyfriend, wanting to just say the hell with it and leave these two to their coddling if that what they wanted to do. My female friends were always telling me that it annoyed them, but it was hard to be sure, and it just felt awkward. Even if they truly were annoyed, what then? Should I intervene? Then I'd like look stupid, but if I knew that they didn't want to be taken by the arm when the ground got a little uneven was it my duty as a friend of both parties to say "hey, she knows how to walk, you know." Not to mention it seemed to me that this wasn't really my place, perhaps if I had been dating one of these girls I would've had a place to say something, but the situation was just so nebulous and ill-defined, really, who the hell were we all to each other.
The months went by and the telephone calls continued on a daily basis, but, strangely, after a while, I discovered that I didn't really mind them. They were usually no more than 3 minutes long, and, though they all ended with an invitation to Hro's house the same day, we seemed to have had come to a tacit understanding that most of the time I wasn't going to be able to make it, ( I usually have something to do) that he understood this and wasn't bothered by it, but had to offer every time nonetheless. Even his visits became much more tolerable, he seemed to expect that I was usually busy with something, and got to be more tolerant of having a quick conversation in my doorway. Within a few months I found that I was actually expecting him to call, and when a day would go by when he wouldn't, I'd notice.
At the beginning of March Hro mentioned to me that he was probably going back to Russia for the summer again but didn't know when. I received the news initially with a kind of relief, although I wasn't really bothered by him anymore, and in fact, in many ways considered him my friend, I was glad that he was going to have something to do for the summer and that I would be able to spend my last few months here without having to continually turn down invitations to his house.
On April 3rd we had a small going away party for Hro. Like I wrote above, we brought some gifts and ate a little bit of food while we were there. At some point Paige called on me to make a toast, something that I'm really horrible at, something about the structure of laudatory speech like that evades me even in my own tongue, not to mention my lousy Armenian. I started the speech by saying how Hro and I had first met nearly two years ago and how he was the first person that I had really met in Yeghegnadzor. I wished him well in his work in Russia and said that I hoped we'd meet again either in Armenia or in the states. I also added, for effect, that he was a great friend. I didn't really felt like I meant it when I said it, I mean I thought of him as a friend, but I certainly didn't number him among my really good friends, but the nature of friendship is an elusive thing. I guess it was hard for me to really think of Hro as a good friend because he did all the work for me. I never had to call him, I never had to stop by his place, he always did these things for me. And, perhaps more importantly, I realize now that Hro actually taught me a lot of the place I have lived for the past two years. As I have few other friends his age and gender here, (the little kids seem to think I'm pretty amusing, my students are all female and everyone else is at least middle-aged) I have learned most of what I knew about the behavior of young Armenian men from him.If it wasn't for Hro I probably wouldn't know when to say 'da vai' [Russian], 'prosta' [again, Russian] or how to light cigarettes for your friend and try to make him smoke yours instead of the ones he has. Sure, these things are ubiquitous in this society and you see and hear them all the time, but there's something akin to an initiation that yo have to go through to really understand them, for me, Hro took me through this initiation.
It wasn't even a week later when I was hanging out with two other young men when he called me from Russia. I was happy to hear from him and we talked for a few minutes about what it was like in Russia. When I came back in the room one of the young men asked me who I'd been talking to, when I told him he kinda; smirked. "I think he just wanted to get to know the foreign girls you're friends with" he responded, and soon I found myself vehemently defending Hro, the same guy who had annoyed me in more ways and on more occasions than I care to count. it was at this point that I realized, like so many other seemingly trivial things, Hro had become a major part of my time in Armenia, although he had nothing to do with my work or how I spend most of my free time, there he was, and probably will be forever when I recount stories from this place.
I should add here too that while I was writing this he called me, the second time from Russia and he's only been gone about four days. Our conversation went something like this.
"Huh? Barev Hro jan , vonc es, inch ka?"
"Inch klini, Jonis, du asa"
"Lav em, inch pes meesht. Inch ka aynter?"
"Ba, voch mi, heto?"
"Heto..yes im, ban, vagha yes kgnam Sisiani im ankroch senund."
"Lav, kzanges, kshnorhvorem"
"Lav, kzangem, heto."
"Heto ban chika."
"Lav, uremen, kzangem yete pogh umen vagha."
In more ways than one we speak the same language.