Before his sudden departure from the world’s scene, my father said,"Son, you must make the trip to your homeland of Armenia. Each night in the great city of Yerevan, the music of Aznavour and Khachaturian is played over loudspeakers, while the people dance against a backdrop of colorful fountains. To truly understand your heritage, be around your people whenever you can- on the buses and at the outdoor markets. Go and visit your cousin Nora and aunt Marie while you are there."
That day I took in my father’s words, but it wasn’t until later that I understood the true weight of their significance. Being of Armenian descent, but having never set foot in that land, my father served as my one link to the other half of my ancestral inheritance. Through the generous sharing of his own life experience, I was handed a colorful tapestry that spoke of a family rich in artistic expression.
My late uncle Hagop Hagopian was a celebrated artist who excelled in a variety of mediums, while his wife, my aunt Marie, is an accomplished painter who recently exhibited her work at The National Gallery of Armenia. My father, Krikor Hovelian, was a professional musician, who no doubt helped to influence my own continued love and devotion for the craft.
But for as much as he shared while he was alive, there were still more questions after his passing. There was a hunger to get to the visceral core of my own history and therefore, existence. The spark that had been placed within me had turned into a flame, and I needed to go where it was calling- Armenia.
I was told that upon entering Armenia, that the Customs Agents would stamp your passport and say, “Welcome home”.
I was slightly disappointed when I didn’t receive that blessing. As we were leaving the airport, I had a romantic impulse to fall to my knees and kiss the ground, but upon seeing the cold concrete, changed my mind and blew a silent kiss into the air instead.
My cousins from Australia had met me in Paris so we could fly to Yerevan together. The late night rainy drive into the center of Yerevan was long. As I stared out the window and tried to grasp the fact that I was here, actually following my father’s advice, I had a sense that it was his joy, somehow filling my own small heart, and expanding it to the point of bursting. My hotel room was on the eleventh floor. Lying on my bed, I couldn’t sleep and I eagerly awaited the rising sun, so I could begin this journey.
At the crack of dawn I walked out onto the balcony, and there in the distance was what I assumed to be Mount Ararat. I must admit it wasn’t as enormous as I imagined, so when I turned to walk to the other side of the balcony, I let out an audible gasp upon seeing what I quickly realized was the real Mount Ararat, looming before me, with its noble summit in the clouds. After breakfast we were picked up by a tour guide and his driver in a small white van. My head was spinning in circles trying not to miss a single site while being driven to Echmiadzin Cathedral, which is the very first Christian church in history. Once we arrived, and were strolling into the sunlight towards this magnificent ancient monument, I noticed a group of High Priests and clergymen approaching on foot. With their black robes and long grey beards, they were somber and regal sentients, slowly guiding the unadorned man in their midst. As they drew nearer, speaking amongst each other all the while, I began to make out details of the tall man in the group, who was bald and wearing jeans and an off white sport coat. As we got even closer to each other, I could not believe my eyes and immediately recognized the tall man as the actor John Malkovich. As we passed each other, I calmly said, “Hi John" as if I knew him. He politely nodded in acknowledgement and walked past me. I was standing at one of the world's holiest sites and just said Hi to one of my favorite actors... WOW!!! I immediately texted my friend Jason Mraz back in America telling him where I was and who I just bumped into. His quick reply was, “Of course this happens to you. You lead a magical existence.” I had no clue what would happen next would be the most magical moment of my life.
The bumpy drive and smell of exhaust made me car sick, so I was glad when we reached our next destination, a 4th century monastery called Gerhard, which is built into the rocks of a mountain. On the slow walk up to the Church our tour guide pointed to a large cave high up on the cliff where Saint Gregory the Illuminator gave music lessons. I thought of all the times when I was a kid growing up in London and how I complained to my mum about the long drive each week to my music lessons. As I reminisced, I felt a twinge of gratitude that at least I didn’t have to scale a cliff to learn how to play guitar. I wandered around the site alone for a while and saw some people walking up the stone stairs into a large cave, and followed them into a pitch black cavern. I stood with my back against the stone as two women and two men stood in the center with tiny lights glowing over their music books and began to sing a capella Armenian hymns. It was the most beautiful music I had heard in this life, as it was pure haunting harmony. I knew it would be impossible to describe any further with words, as they would only prove inadequate. What I can say with certainty, is that I was activated, and I felt brand new and ancient at the same time. When the singers were finished, they exited the cave and everyone followed, but me. Overcome with emotion, I stayed behind. As the darkness enveloped me, I can only describe what followed as having a conversation with my father’s ghost. I thanked him for encouraging me to be here. We embraced and he told me to walk out of this cave and begin to live like you have never lived before. As I walked outside I saw my cousin buying the singers' CD they were selling at the entrance. George looked at me incredulously and gasped, “You were in there? That's amazing that I could not see you; I prayed that you were there listening.”
On the drive down the mountain I was quiet, reflective and not ready to leave that heavenly place. The tour guide told us he was taking us to a famous doughnut shop in the heart of Yerevan. As my cousin and I stood in line to place our order, I felt the eyes of young boy staring at me and smiling, so I smiled back. To my surprise, he walked straight over to me and extended his tiny hand to shake mine. As our hands and eyes met, he said in perfect English, “I know you are Armenian.” It was all I could do to hold back the tears that instantly welled up behind my eyes, and I knew it was “The Welcome Home” blessing I had finally received.