Armenians are a diaspora. War, persecution and political upheaval in our small country and the neighboring ones we’ve historically inhabited have made us pack our bags for elsewhere . These days you’ll find us in the US, Canada, Australia and all across Europe. Through history we’ve had bases in India, Ethiopia, Malaysia and Singapore. You’ll find Armenians in Argentina, Russia, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and of course our small country in the Caucasus.
One thing’s for certain, we are a well-dispersed people.
My own family is scattered on four continents and half a dozen countries, one reason why I started traveling young. Sad as it is to have such distances between us it’s also been enriching, and on my travels this year it’s meant always having a familiar face remotely nearby.
Which brings me to Australia.
I had the chance to connect with cousins and family friends here. They opened their homes to me in typical Armenian hospitality and I learned a lot about this little niche of the diaspora.
They told stories about the mischief they got into with my parents growing up. I have so much dirt on them now, it’s great.
They fed me the comfort foods I’d missed, fluffy buttery basmati rice and chicken-pomegranate-walnut stew and stuffed grape leaves and home-grilled kabobs. I didn’t expect I’d be so attached to those childhood flavors, but thousands of miles from “home” you come to realize what exactly home is.
In Tasmania we baked sesame seed flecked-flatbread in the wood-burning earthen oven.
In Sydney we baked goteb, football-shaped bread pockets filled with herbs and spinach.
In Melbourne, away from family, I sought out the Lebanese neighborhood on Sydney Road and found A1 Bakery (as had Anthony Bourdain on his last visit) where I shared rosewater nugat, baklava, and a copper jazve of coffee with a fellow traveler.
The Bonesetter’s Granddaughter
Among the stories shared were those of my grandfather, an orphan who grew up earning his keep shepherding in the mountainous region along the Iran/Armenia border. The area was so remote and predominately Armenian that according to family lore the villagers weren’t sure which side they lived on, and it certainly didn’t matter. It was subsistance farming and the survival of the fittest, far from the reaches or intrusion of any government.
In his years roaming alone in these wild mountains, looking after livestock, my grandfather learned to set the broken bones of the sheep and goats he was charged with. And somehow, the connection is still unclear, he transfered the skill to setting bones for people, and learned the traditionally Chinese art of cupping. My grandmother was his sidekick, or perhaps you could say she had a show of her own, making kitchen remedies: salves, herbal tinctures, poltices and medicinal teas. All of the families I stayed with in Australia had a story, or several, of a broken bone or ailment my grandparents had healed. Even after immigrating to the US, friends and family who’d heard of their skills would visit at all hours asking for their help.
Now, years and continents later, I can still feel who they are and where they came from in my bones. I wonder what my grandparents would think of this wandering creature I am, so different from who they were. Could they have even dreamed my life possible? Weren’t they wanderers too, in a sense? I know I carry pieces of them with me. I’ve inherited my grandmother’s green thumb and a bit of her kitchen witchery, and my grandfather’s quiet contemplative nature, but I am so far from those rural mountains and that dusty village. So far from home.