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Making Friends in a Conflict Zone

The Nagorno Karabakh region of Armenia is an area where there is territorial dispute with neighbouring Azerbaijan. Although it had been a war zone since the late 1980s a cease-fire had been established in 1994 and, when we travelled to Armenia a few years later, the local guide felt that it was safe to visit. Along with a group of other visitors we were invited to travel to the region to see the Noravank Monastery and the hotel we had been staying at, in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, threw in a picnic lunch.

Noravank monastery Nagorno Karabakh

Noravank is a beautiful monastery, built in typical Armenian style. It contains a number of buildings, the dominant structure of which is Surb Astvatsatsin (Holy Mother of God). As with many Armenian monasteries there are a number of khachkars – carved stone slabs which each bear a cross – which can also been seen around the complex.

When we arrived at the site we discovered that we weren’t the only visitors. A local family were gathered together around a makeshift table and were clearly having a celebration. A fleece lay draped across the branches of a nearby tree, a sheep having been slaughtered at the site and was now roasting over a fire.

We know how we would feel if a coach-load of tourists turned up to a family celebration, that is, a bit miffed. But Armenia is still a relatively unusual destination and, when we visited, tourists were rare. We were welcomed with open arms.

Armenia Noravank picnic

We had no idea what event the family were celebrating. We could speak about seven words of Armenian and they could speak no English. The family beckoned to us to join them. Of around twelve visitors in the tourist group, only we and one other joined the party. Such a shame – the other nine missed out on a fantastic celebration, totally their loss.  (You can see the grumps in the background of the photo below, sitting on a hill, waiting for their hotel picnic and watching us having a good time.)

Armenia Noravank picnic

The family had clearly prepared – they had brought 40 buckets of home-made wine with them and they generously plied us with drink. We were offered barbequed lamb so fresh it had been bleating just hours earlier, flat breads, pickled walnuts, the freshest salads and fruit. All delicious. Food always tastes better with friends, even if you have only known them for minutes.

Armenia Noravank picnic

This happened over 20 years ago. We still have precious memories of that afternoon; of a most delicious meal, of gorging on wine, toasting a group of people who had been kind enough to invite some foreign visitors to their party, of being made to feel unbelievably welcome. We could not properly speak their language (although we were able to thank them in Armenian), they could not speak ours. We had no idea what the correct etiquette was, but we learned that day that communication does not have to be verbal. What we could express was our gratitude – with a huge smile, a raised glass and a farewell hug. We may have been picnicking in a region where there was a territorial dispute between two countries, but our experience quite simply reflected the very best of humanity.

Toasting tradition in Georgia
Toasting tradition in Georgia
Georgian cheese boat
Georgian cheese pies
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  1. What a wonderful welcome to the area!
    40 buckets of wine! That would last me a lifetime, no wonder they were happy to ply everyone with drink with those quantities – hope it was good wine.
    These random acts of kindness have such a positive and cherished effect on us all, they certainly were happy to include you in the celebration and so funny that you still don’t know what they were celebrating.
    I’ve had many of these spontaneous gestures on my travels and that memory often stays with me longer and in precedence to the sights I saw there.
    The caucuses are on my list to explore – hopefully sooner rather than later and the Nagorno-Karabakh region is one I defo want to see – hopefully there will be no resurgence of the conflicts when I go there.

    • You’re absolutely right – our memories of the kindness of strangers are something that have stayed with us for many, many years. It was such a very lovely thing. The wine was home-made and, as far as we can recall, a very fine vintage! We do hope you get to visit the Caucuses – we thoroughly enjoyed Armenia and Georgia – both countries with a tradition of wonderful hospitality.

  2. Most of us are just out here trying to live, enjoy ourselves and be kind to one another. It’s the talking heads and the ones who yell the loudest that make it seem otherwise. It’s experiences like this that can help keep us grounded in difficult times.

    • I couldn’t have put this better myself. Kindness – particularly when travelling – is something to be cherished. And it does remind us that most people are indeed good, as you say, just trying to live their lives and to be kind. This was an amazing experience and one we will never forget.

  3. What an amazing experience. I can see why 20 years later you still have amazing memories. This is truly why travel is so important to the world. Not to see an old church or beautiful waterfall (though in do enjoy those too) but to connect with one another and put a name, face and emotion with the people of a region. Too bad there are a lot of ignorant Americans lol.

    • You’re absolutely right – this is what makes travel so important. It was a memory that we will never forget – one of being made to feel so welcome and to connect with people from a culture so different to our own. (And we do know a lot of lovely Americans!)

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