Are you surprised that not all in the expat life is full of fun and frivolity? Surely not. Not even all that is exotic is full of joy and thrills. This week Miss Footloose has for you a tale of a wake she attended in Armenia after she’d just arrived in the country. Do get yourself a stiff drink before reading on.
If Only I Had Known
I’m staring at a blank computer screen agonizing over what to write about the light side of my new life in Armenia when my husband calls from his office.
“You want to go to a wake?” he asks.
A wake? I’ve been in the country less than a month. It’s February. It’s cold. The capital, Yerevan, is a gray mass of dreary stone buildings and dirty iced-over snow. No color to be found anywhere. Everybody is dressed in black head to toe. Nobody smiles.
And now a wake. “Why?” I ask.
“We’ve been invited.” Apparently the father of a client, a certain Grigor, has died and the entire office has been invited to the wake. What you do is shake hands with the bereaved (and kiss if you feel so inclined), then stand around for ten minutes and leave.
“It might be an interesting cultural experience,” my mate says.
Shake hands and stand around for ten minutes? How hard can that be?
I meet the rest of the wake-goers at the office where a van is waiting to take us to the house of mourning, just outside of town.
It is about a twenty-minute drive to the suburbs, which might make you think of four-bedroom houses with pretty flower gardens, but forget that. This Yerevan suburb can be described as a bleak maze of decrepit stone apartment blocks, Soviet style. Everything is colorless, barren and dilapidated. However, the one saving grace that these places have is the view. The mountains surrounding the town are spectacular with their covering of snow glinting in the setting sun.
We stop in front of one of the apartment blocks. We know what door to enter: the one with the lid of a black casket leaning upright next to it.
The stairwell is cold and dark, open to the outside and the chilly winter wind. The walls, the steps, the railings – everything is dirty and broken and cracked. The King of Disrepair rules here. The window frames are empty of glass. The lamp fixtures have no light bulbs. We struggle up four flights of crumbling concrete stairs, amid a mob of other visitors coming and going.
I am behind Sona-from-the-office and hope she will guide me through this ritual as I do not know what to do. On one of the landings we see the grieving Grigor receiving condolences, shaking hands and kissing people. I stick out my hand and tell him I am sorry about his father and he nods, looking dazed.
We enter the small apartment, squeezing inside the entry room packed tight with people wearing heavy coats and standing up. Sona shakes the hand of a leathery old man, and kisses him. She turns around. “Grigor’s father,” she tells me.
Either he was not the one dead, or he has made a miraculous return to the land of the living. Oh, God, I’m thinking, I told Grigor sorry about his father. Was it his grandfather then? Did I not hear my man right when he called earlier?
I shake the old man’s calloused hand and tell him I am sorry for his loss (maybe his father?), hoping he finds this satisfactory, but he may not understand me anyway or care less what this foreign woman has to say.
Then Sona introduces me to Grigor’s mother and I shake hands with her and offer her the same line. She has a sweet face, no make up, and smiles at me. She wears three visible layers of sweaters, a mousy skirt, thick stockings, house slippers, and a woolish hat. The apartment is not heated, I am sure, but the worst of the winter cold is chased away by the body heat of the mourners milling around wearing their mothball-scented coats.
I’ve lost my husband. Sona and I are led into a room. In the middle is a low table covered with an Armenian carpet on which rests the black casket. Inside is a body, but not that of anyone’s father or grandfather. The corpse was once a woman. An old woman. Her face looks colorless and calm and devoid of any make-up. She’s wearing a fluffy grey sweater, her gnarled hands resting on her chest. A beige satiny cloth covers the lower part of her body.
Mourners are sitting on chairs placed around the walls of the room in a double row. All women, mostly older. They’re all wearing old-fashioned long coats, scarves and hats and stare vacantly into the middle distance or whisper softly to each other. I count over forty women. Someone vacates her seat near the door and I am told to sit down. I cannot tell you how freaky I feel sitting here in this room full of strangers, never having met the dead person in the casket, not even knowing who she is. I stare at the body, looking appropriately solemn which is not hard to do considering the funereal ambiance. Mournful music fills the room, coming from an unseen source. I have never heard music like this–a single keening voice backed up by some slow instrumental music that sounds otherworldly and eerie, as if played in an empty universe. It goes straight through your soul, let me tell you. It gives me the creeps. I suppress the hysterical impulse to jump from the nearest window and join granny in the afterlife.
Watching all these poor people huddled around the casket, I wish I could just take this gloomy lot and transport them to somewhere warm and cheerful, like Walmart or Marks and Spencer. Buy them new coats, sweaters of many colors, red boots, purple scarves and yellow hats. Apple pie and coffee afterward for a treat.
But Walmart is far away, and this is, after all, a wake.
I think of Ghana, West Africa, where I used to live only months ago. Ghana is warm and sunny, if not heaven. Funerals in Ghana are boisterous celebrations, full of beer drinking and hymn singing. The well-to-do have their coffins made in advance, carved masterpieces in the shape of BMWs, fishing boats, beer bottles, and so on, whatever they identify with in life.
I love Ghana. What am I doing here?
I’m huddled in my coat looking at an open casket is what I’m doing. For what seems like hours, trance-like, the music luring me into the depths of a zombie state of which there may be no return.
Where is Sona? She’s not in the room. Why is she not rescuing me?
I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone. Numbly, I listen to the murmurings and weepings around me while the macabre music is turning my blood cold. I think I’m losing my mind.
My capacity for eerie gloom exhausted, I get up and leave the room. I find Sona lurking just outside the door in the hall, still packed full with visitors, mostly men. Through a partially open door I glimpse another room, this one full of more men a-mourning, a-drinking and a-smoking. Hundreds must be coming and going in this small place. Where is my mate? I don’t see him anywhere, nor any of the others.
We’re not ready to leave, apparently. Sona tells me we’re waiting for Karineh, one of the project professionals who’s been working with Grigor. She’s sick with the flu, but will make an appearance at the wake for propriety’s sake. Grigor’s mother opens another door right where we are standing and we’re told to go into its gloom and sit on the bed and wait there.
Despair in my heart, I sit down on the side of the mattress, sagging down in its spine-breaking softness, wondering if I will ever get out of the place, away from all these sad people and the eerie music. Ten minutes of standing around, we were told. It’s been an hour. I’m too depressed to feel outraged.
I feel guilty for wanting to get away, guilty because I was never cold for the lack of heat, because I grew up in Holland with color and cheer and happiness and red coats and turquoise sweaters and everything else I ever needed. And why should I deserve it anymore than these people? These thoughts do nothing to lighten my mood. Philosophizing often has that effect on me. Deep thoughts too. Shallow musings work so much better for me.
Finally Karineh arrives and joins us on the bed. She’s wearing fashionable jeans, a black sweater, a black coat and a dark designer scarf. She looks miserable. The flu, she says thickly and sneezes copiously. Here she is, amid this packed crowd, doing her duty, hugging and kissing all and sundry, spreading eager, voracious germs. An flu epidemic may start here which might result in more wakes considering the general unhealthy pallor of the older folk among the grievers.
The moment arrives when Sona thinks it’s all right to go. We shove our way through the crowd in the hallway and down the frigid, lightbulbless stairwell, swept along with the mourning masses. I try not to breathe as I wade through a heavy miasma of warm damp wool, brandy breath and cigarette smoke. Outside by the van is the rest of the (male) gang, wondering what had happened to us females.
I don’t know what happened. All I know right now is that I’ve never seen a more beautiful view than the snow-covered mountains shimmering in the moonlight. I take a deep breath of cold, pure air.
Half an hour later we’re back home in our cheery little house. I take a warm shower and put on my sky-blue robe. My man and I settle down on the sofa with a bowl of warmed up, left-over cabbage soup and watch some gloriously inane American sitcoms beamed in from Dubai.
It’s heaven on earth.
* * *
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Not that I went to a lot of wakes and things growing up in the UK, but what I didn’t see was an open coffin. Here in the USA, most of the wakes and “viewings” have an open coffin, and quite often you have to file past with the rest of the friends and family. Shudder.
Open coffins aren’t common in Holland either. Shudder indeed.
What a somber scenario… I also felt like I was in the room with you. You’re so right though – not all expat experiences are all sunshine and rainbows. That’s life, right? You know when you get invited to a local ‘do’, that’s when you’ve really arrived. It’s just too bad it was a wake and not a birthday party or wedding or something like that. But, as your mate said, it was a cultural experience, for sure! I remember being invited to a retirement party in Greece… we thought it was actually a birthday party until almost the end… Read more »
I’m so curious, though: did you ever find out exactly who it was that died- I’m assuming Grigor’s grandmother? Such a great post – I was right there in the room with you!
It was the grandmother. Got lost in translation, probably. Glad you liked my writing!
This is so weird…my t.v. is on, the History Channel is doing a documentary about ancient cultures, death and the after-life. I wasn’t paying attention before.
At wakes here, depending on the religion of the person’s who’s died, there’s alcohol / no alcohol; noise / quiet chatter; no prayers / prayers; card-playing, dominoes or not.
I take the ‘strangeness’ of it all for granted until I see it through the eyes of a stranger.
Interesting how each culture reacts to death.
Clearly, you don’t live in a mono-culture 😉 Makes for a more interesting environment, for sure!