Rien told his host, Ms. Meri Shahinjan, that he enjoyed his work in the NFL because he got to hit people, something for which he'd otherwise be arrested. Just what a mother wants to hear her son say on (Armenian) national TV. That's my boy.
The show proved to be the ice-breaker for our entire trip, as every dolma-blooded Armenian seems to watch it and was therefore able to recognize the giant American football star.
Armenians are clueless about the pigskin sport, so they tend to think it's something like rugby. Nonetheless, they were duly impressed by his size and apparent notoriety.
Cafesjian Museum (Cascade)
The architect, David Hotson of New York, has designed a unique, contemporary and multifunctional structure that serves as a transport facility for people traveling to the top of the hill. It houses a museum, theatre and congregation area and a giant crystalline monument - not yet completed, but sure to be a show-stopper.
The project is funded by Gerard L. Cafesjian, a wealthy and generous diasporan Armenian who has contributed much of his wealth to various cultural and life-enhancing projects.
Our first lunch in Armenia was at the base of the Cascade, at an outdoor café where my mother began practicing her Armenian with the waitresses and the rest of us began developing a taste for Armenian beer (Kotayk is the national favorite).
For our entire trip we had a large van complete with a wonderful driver named Vrej Vartanian. Being a Vartanian myself, and with Rien's middle name being Vartan, we considered Vrej a fellow family member. Each day endeared him more to us as he became an integral part of our merry band.
at Mughni and Sagmosahvank
Over the years, while surrounding countries built up their armies and prepared for invasions, the Armenians concentrated on building churches and perfecting the arts of rug-making and embroidery. Unfortunately their attention to education, culture and spiritual pursuits left them unprepared for many invasions, not to mention the horrific genocide perpetrated by the Turks in the early 1900's. It was not their inherent nature to be warlike, but out of necessity they eventually developed a warrior mentality.
The upside of the Armenian's concentration on the finer things is the abundance of exquisite Armenian churches and a deeply rooted pride in the many displays of unique Armenian culture. Among many such gems, they have a beautiful and divinely inspired alphabet. It was designed and taught to all Armenians, rich and poor, to give them the ability to read and interpret the Bible and other important documents for themselves (as opposed to relying on the church for interpretation).
The first church on our menu was at Mughni. The three concentric circles in the dome of this church provided the inspiration for one of Rien's tattoos.
At Mughni I had my first up close and personal meeting with a genuine khatchkar which means cross rock in Armenian. These wonderful creations are to Armenians what graffiti is to gangs in East LA. The difference is that there was just one gang, and they all agreed on their logo - a highly embellished cross, unique to Armenians. Big and small, large quantities of them adorn every church and are often carved randomly into the rock walls of both the exteriors and interiors. Fortunately they are quite beautiful, so one never tires of seeing them pictured in most all literature about Armenia.
Outside the church was a group of gentlemen playing Tavoli (backgammon). This is a game taken quite seriously by Armenians, and the players were not in the least distracted by the giant American-Armenian and his entourage. However, the local kids had gathered and began playing a little soccer with Rien.
Our next stop was the church of Saghmosavank. This nifty little church was perched on a steep cliff overlooking a river and was covered in snow. There was a classic herd of sheep blocking the road along with their crusty shepherd. So we parked the van and piled out to trek in the snow for a look at our next foto op.