YSIP 2013: An Unforgettable Journey to Karabakh

YSIP 2013 participant Angelika Hakopyan looks back fondly on her group trip to Karabakh and how the beauty of the land defied her expectations.

Looking out our bus window, my friends and I were nothing short of anxious at entering Karabakh. Not knowing much about this country, the pitch blackness and the stories of war tanks laying across the land fueled our imagination and led us to believe we were entering a war-ridden land that was devastated by the battles from years ago. I couldn’t understand why the many native Armenians who knew about my trip were excited at the opportunity I would have to witness the beauty of Karabakh. Nonetheless, all that changed when we embarked on our journey the next day. I quickly came to realize why everyone else was so thrilled at the prospect of my visit to this country, a place that was, at least for me, shrouded in mystery and ignorance.

Stepping out of our hotel and driving to the Parliament building in Stepanakert in the early morning, allowed me my first real look at Karabakh and I became conscious of the fact that my preconceived judgments were completely impetuous. From the various churches we visited to the historic landmarks of Shushi, the environment was nothing short of spectacular. Even the hour-long drives to these locations were enjoyable because of the breathtaking scenery. We visited countless sights, but the three most memorable for me were the opera, the grand cathedral, and the astounding mountain region.

On our first night in Karabakh, the AGBU YSIP group and I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch an opera in Tigranakert. The drive over to the location was an adventure in itself because we got to see things like old war machinery and a present-day ghost town whose remnants were scattered across a wide array of land. The opera was also extremely entertaining because the setup of the stage gave an ambience of creativity as it was set within the walls of a fortress beneath the starry sky. There were a lot of laughs as we watched a typical romance story unfold between two young lovers who must fight for their love against the girl’s overprotective father—to an extent, most Armenians can relate to this storyline. All in all, the opera ended on a happy note, as did our night.

The following day, we visited the town of Shushi. The walking tour was enjoyable and a pleasant change from the constant driving. One of the more memorable places we visited in Shushi was the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral. The view of the cathedral was awe-inspiring. Since it was Sunday morning, my fellow interns and I got the opportunity to watch the weekly mass. Standing in the pews of the cathedral, I really got the sense of what it feels like to be a fellow inhabitant of Karabakh. I shared this moment with everyone else there, be they an AGBU intern or not.

Of all the places we visited during our stay in Karabakh, the most unforgettable were the mountains of Jdrduz. While walking towards our final destination, I became more and more in awe of the grandeur of the place. At first I thought the vast field of flowers was what our coordinator meant to show us, but when she told me to keep walking towards the edge of the cliff, the endlessness of this landmark’s magnificence dawned on me. Standing on the edge of a rock, all one can see is the infinite greenery of the landscape. The river flowing below and the clear blue skies above made the sight seem almost unreal, as if an artist had painted the scenery with the stroke of his brush.

Having the opportunity to leave the streets of Yerevan and enter a completely new environment made this trip all the more special. If someone were to ask me what makes this whole experience worthwhile, I would say it is the places we get to see, but it is also the people I get the chance to experience it with. Our final night in Karabakh was definitely one of the most unforgettable—a combination of good food, good company, and good music. Our coordinator Anna summed up the trip in one simple phrase in her toast: “Who would have thought that twenty years ago, thirty interns from five different countries would be gathered here today, sitting in Stepanakert, enjoying tetu oghi.” The night ended with an abundance of smiles and laughs..

YSIP 2013 Interns Visit Military Academy in Yerevan

YSIP 2013 participant Matt Andonian compares his experience as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point to the lives of the cadets at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Armenia.

With visit to the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Yerevan, AGBU YSIP has given me a chance to directly compare my life as a college student in the United States to that of college students in Armenia. Interning at the Military Academy in Armenia as a former West Point cadet has given me a special opportunity to see how my education in the United States compares with the education that cadets receive in Armenia. I was expecting a large difference in the way the academies operate and very few similarities between the United States military and the military of a post-Soviet state. What I found, however, brought back a flood of memories from my freshman year and made for a few shocking revelations that revealed the seriousness of becoming a professional soldier in the Armenian Army.

When we arrived at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy in Yerevan, we headed directly to the mess hall for lunch. Understandably, the mess hall was not nearly as big as the one at West Point, which must fit 4,000 cadets at once, but the idea of groups of cadets eating together at a family style meal is the same. One of the officers with whom we had lunch also explained that the cadets are told when to begin eating and when they need to finish and leave—a short amount of time that was very similar to my meals at West Point.

As soon as we left, we were taken to the dorms at the Military Academy where the daily lives of the cadets were explained to us. We were shown the dorm rooms that the cadets slept in, which had wool blankets very similar to those issued at West Point. The beds were also meticulously made as one would expect in any military barracks. I was definitely glad that I didn’t have to share my room with as many people as the Armenian cadets do but I was expecting as much from the smaller academy here.

Everyone’s favorite part of the academy tour was the simulated gun range that we were able to use at the end of our tour. This part of the tour was a large surprise for me. I was not expecting the Armenian academy to have this kind of technology and was quite excited to be able to use it. I had used a very similar one at West Point but most of the group had never seen one before that day. Everyone took turns aiming at the black silhouettes on the screen, and I think we all did pretty well considering most of us had never done anything like it before.

As a former cadet, I am aware of the sacrifices that the members of any military make to defend their homes. The cadets at the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy make a huge sacrifice while they are still cadets as well as during their future careers in the Armenian Army. The trip to the Academy helped me understand just how serious the commitment of each of these cadets is to Armenia and the gravity of the situation Armenia still finds itself in following the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. I’m thankful that the AGBU and the Armenian Army made it possible for me to visit the Vazgen Sargsyan Military Academy and to get this unique firsthand experience..

YSIP 2013 Intern’s Reflections on Artsakh

YSIP 2013 intern Nana Shakhnazaryan writes about her visit to Artsakh and what it means to her.

After hours of driving and stopping, swerving and climbing with nothing but flower spotted mountains to keep with the passing of time, we arrived in Artsakh just a few days ago. It’s a hard place to get to and an even harder one to write about. A land cemented in a conflict as old as most of us interns, a land unrecognized and practically unknown internationally, Artsakh is home to 140,000 people and a homeland to thousands more.

I am one of those thousands and so, trying to write about a land so responsible for the course of my life up until now is proving to be more difficult than I thought. I could write about the facts of the war and the men, women, and children who died; there are words that attempt to package those emotions and, for the most part, succeed. I could write about the sweetness of the fruits, the cold wind on mountains that practically touch the sun, or the way that grapevines lick almost everything man-made: words for that exist as well. Maybe I could even write about how much closer a group of thirty human beings felt when the space we shared was no longer a city like Yerevan. All of these things would give insight on what this trip was in one way or another; each story would answer a question the reader might have had. Instead, I want to write about the Nagorno- Karabakh Republic in a way that hasn’t forced me to favor certain emotions over others, in a way that hasn’t asked me to forget one experience because another would be more suitable for an audience like this.

Artsakh is the in-between of place, time, sentiment, and space. It is a word that doesn’t have its sound yet. It is a refugee. Locked in a land it has bled to be apart from, it is suspended in government, discourse and public understanding. But, this is a liquid suspension because, despite Nagorno- Karabakh being a frozen conflict zone, structurally, culturally and economically, it is moving. Progress is what I felt, partly because I want to believe it and largely because Artsakh is transforming itself. It is rebuilding what was bombed and pillaged and building what never had a chance to be. In fact, going to the ruins of the Real School in Shushi was a testament to the priority of this reconstruction; quality education and new culture has not been condemned to death here. Artsakh is in between so much concretely and abstractly (historically, politically, culturally) that it injects that quiet chaos in the visitor.

And now come those emotional words I tried to handle earlier. Pride (because we defended it with what little we had, and won), peppered with shame (for are there not families we also displaced?). Happiness about the beauty we coexist with: the hushes of bees in fertile fields and clean air that hugs the chest; and the overwhelming sadness about the destruction of war. A more eloquent word for this in-betweenness is elusive but it stands to articulate everything this land is. It is separation and unification: its progress is “frozen” but fluid, its land “unrecognized” but settled, and its people “forgotten” but alive, proud, and dancing.

The last night we spent in Artsakh, a toast was made before thirty pinched cups of mulberry vodka floated to the air. We were reminded of the dream we were in to be where we were, to be eating and talking, laughing and dancing as young Armenians in a land that had so recently been ravaged by Hell. Under the music of our instruments and the hum of our language, I hope we realized that the stones in our shoes, the dirt in our clothes, and sun in our skin meant that we were, in fact, welcomed by the free and independent Republic of Artsakh..

YSIP 2013: A Life-Changing Internship in an Armenian Village

YSIP 2013 participant Ani Djirdjirian gives a moving account of her life-changing experience interning at a COAF sponsored summer program for schoolchildren in the village of Lernagog:

My name is Ani Djirdjirian and I am currently an intern with the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program. I am 19 years old pursuing a Psychology and Vocal Performance degrees at Adelphi University of New York. To say the least, I have a burning passion for my culture and have struggled to keep my Armenian culture alive while growing up amongst many varying cultures in the United States. For this very reason, I try to participate in as many Armenian events and organizations as my time allows—singing in the Huyser Armenian music ensemble, dancing with the AGBU Antranig Dance Ensemble, as well as teaching music and dance to Armenian children at the Holy Martyrs Armenian Language School in New York on Saturdays. It has always been my dream to come to my Motherland and experience firsthand the country that I have only heard about through the many stories my parents have shared with my sister and me, the music I grew up hearing, and of course, the delicious foods I’ve been eating my entire life. Now, not only have I embarked on a most unforgettable experience, hoping to work to change the lives of my own people, but I am beginning to see how this internship is gradually altering my own life as well.

I am an intern at the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), which is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the social, educational, economic, health, and living conditions of families and children in poverty-stricken rural villages of Armenia. They offer a number of programs in the villages, including school and hospital renovations, consultations with psychologists, food and clean water, classes and seminars for parents, and the majority of their time is spent developing the best programs for children, to ensure that they have a bright future and essentially, change the lives of a generation.

I work with the organization’s child psychologists and travel with them for over an hour each day from their office in Yerevan to the village of Lernagog. There, I work in a summer program for children whose home living conditions and familial situations are unacceptable and do not meet standards of living a regular life. Some of these kids are orphaned, and some are abused at home. Many are too poor to afford daily meals. All of the children I work with have fallen severely behind in school, either because they developed learning disabilities from improper care and lack of attention at home, or because they were unable to attend school at all. My job is to assist them with reading and writing in Armenian, as well as help teach them mathematics. I also spend time with the children teaching them songs in Armenian and English, and am currently choreographing a dance for them for their end of the month show.

The kids I work with are the most amazing and truly beautiful children I have ever met. They are between the ages of seven and twelve and show me every single day just how hard their inquisitive minds work. People in the villages rarely get outside attention and are not exposed to cultures and communities outside of their own towns. This was prevalent when, for example, I told the kids I was from America, and a few of them said that they knew where America was—city in Moscow which is in England. Ever since then, they ask me so many questions about where I live and what I do and how people live in the United States. They are absolutely marveled by the English language and all hope to learn it one day so they can speak to me in my country’s tongue. What I find absolutely adorable is how the kids love cameras. I often bring mine to work with me, and they beg me to take pictures of them or to let them use it themselves. They pose as if they are in a magazine, and if I am taking a picture of one child, they multiply into six, holding hands, waiting for me to snap a shot of them. One day during lunch hour, a parent who often helps out began to play the piano that was in the same room. I had never heard the song she was playing, but all the kids put their forks down and started singing to the music about Armenia. I have never in all of my life seen children sing about their country with such energy and fire. It put a smile on everyone’s face, and tears in my eyes.

In a country where poverty is not rare, it is unrealistic to say that I will be able to help each and every child live a better life. However, my goal is to change the perspective of any child who has no hope. I want to be the encouragement they need to say “Yes, I can be a doctor one day.” I have learned that these kids have so much potential, just no opportunities to apply their abilities. I spoke to a 16-year-old in the village, who has spent years learning English fluently, and had been accepted to a very competitive student exchange program in Normandy. He showed me his very impressive academic resume and all of the projects he has been working on. However, he was forced to deny his acceptance because his family did not have enough money to pay for the trip. I have come to learn about a lot of the kids’ backgrounds from teachers and parents, which helps me to better understand why each child acts the way he or she does, why some of them come in with bruises and scars, and what experiences have made them who they are now. Behind the smiles of the children in these villages lie secrets and desires and dreams that they feel cannot be fulfilled because of their upbringing. I want to teach these kids about working in teams and how music and dance can make the soul so happy that they can forget about what makes them sad at home for just a little bit.

While I feel as though my work with these children is in fact making a difference, for example, walking an 11-year-old through a math problem step by step, the kids are changing my life just as I am trying to change theirs. They will all one day learn how to write their names and multiply numbers but few people ever learn the value of simplicity and getting joy out of the little things in life. As kids around the world are busy playing with their iPads and watching TV all day, my kids are outside climbing trees and picking apricots, and playing games and sports in the heat and dust outside (which is more fun than I ever expected). I have been invited into the homes of some of the locals who have taught me much about their lives. One day, a family I was spending time with taught me a dance of their village in their living room, and I taught them some of what I had learned in my dance group. Everyone can learn something from these kids. They have adversities to face that we who are better off can never even imagine. They have so little to offer materially—small homes and scarce clothing and food— but never has that stopped any of them from smiling like they have the world in their hands. The smallest of gestures make their day so much brighter. Things like teaching them the English alphabet or bringing them chocolate from Grand Candy mean everything to them. They become excited when they get to sit and talk to me and always greet me with hugs. These kids and their families have made me feel at home from the very first day and welcomed me not as an outsider but as one of their own.

Thinking about leaving these kids behind when this internship is over is heartbreaking, and only means one thing—I have to come back. My work has only just begun. What started as an internship where I was not sure what to expect has completely changed my outlook on life. I plan to return not only to visit these kids but to continue to develop a bright future for a generation that truly needs support. Starting small with a group of children in Lernagog will one day become all of the villages in Armenia, and further, all of the children in the world. Does my dream sound too big to fathom? No goal is ever too far away—one of my children taught me that..

YSIP 2013 Participant on his First Journey to the Homeland

YSIP 2013 participant Aris Agdere writes about his first journey to the homeland:

I am proud to say that my first trip to Armenia is as a participant of the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program. YSIP is allowing me to discover my country and true heritage while making amazing friends and experiencing life in the workforce. I was astounded when I found such diversity amongst my fellow interns. They come from the United States, Lebanon, Russia, England, and even Australia. Born and raised in the suburbs of Long Island, New York, I have not had many opportunities to meet fellow Armenians from abroad. This trip has allowed me to broaden my horizons and learn about Armenian culture and traditions as they are practiced in other countries. The cultural similarities between my new international friends and myself amaze me. Although their families have had to spread throughout the world, they have managed to persevere through hardships and preserve their culture. I am building friendships and enjoying my time exploring Armenia with other first-timers.

I particularly enjoyed visiting the Etchmiadzin Cathedral, gasping in awe of its surreal beauty which has been preserved for over 1500 years. Being exposed to such significant landmarks of Armenian history has given me a newfound sense of comfort and purpose which I have not experienced before. Aside from sightseeing and socializing, I am also learning about working life in Armenia as I intern at a tech company called Sourcio, where I am gaining further knowledge in computer science. Technical jargon aside, I am excited to hone my programming skills, which will leave me better prepared for future internships and careers. Ultimately, my experience as an intern for AGBU YSIP has been life-changing. I will not forget the good it has done for me and how it has inspired me to return to my homeland in the future..

YSIP Interns Experience Vartavar in the Armenian Capital

YSIP 2013 intern Lara Ozdemirci shares her story of Vartavar in the Armenian capital:

Vartavar has been one of my most memorable experiences so far on the AGBU Yerevan Summer Internship Program trip. Only in Armenia would a large-scale water fight be a nationally celebrated holiday. I started the day off right by waking everyone in the house up with buckets of water. We then all united as an army of thirty, ready to go off into the madness. But our army was no match for what we were about to encounter. Ten steps into our journey, we were already being attacked by the children of the neighborhood. Half of us were completely soaked only ten minutes into our walk.

I knew what to expect because I had been in Yerevan during Vartavar in 2008. But even so, I did not expect the level of chaos that took place at Garabi Lich (Swan Lake) park. You could feel water hitting you from every direction. The locals felt no mercy; everyone was a target. People were being pushed into the pond every second. What I enjoyed the most was passing by Parliament and seeing two guards carrying another guard to be thrown into the fountain. It really showed how everyone participates in this amazingly unique holiday where no one is safe.

On the way back when we were nearly home, we were splashed by a policeman, once again reminding me how full of life the people of this country are and making me fall in love with the city even more. Even though some of us left with battle wounds, I know we all left with an experience that we will never forget..

An LA Armenian Becomes a Moscow Armenian… just for the Summer

As our Moscow Summer Intern Program wraps up this weekend, one participant, Garo Yaghsezian, takes a look back at what made his time as a temporary Muscovite so wonderful:

My name is Garo Yaghsezian, and I am from Los Angeles, California. I attend Loyola Marymount University where I study Political Science and International Relations with an emphasis on the Middle East. I study different political and cultural aspects of diverse countries, people, and cultures that inhabit this world. So what can I say about Moscow?

Well, once you look past the mess and dirt that is expected of a city with this large of a magnitude, you truly start to see…well, more mess and dirt. I guess you are waiting for a “just kidding,” right? Well, I’m serious and I’m even trying to maintain some decorum on the issue. The only thing that is making my summer in Moscow not only enjoyable but also rewarding is the fact that I am here through MSIP.

Personally,

I am not fond of the city; what I am fond of, however, is the amazing Armenian youth and program volunteers who reside in it. In the past 4 weeks, I have not only met fellow Armenians participating in the internship, but I have also met a strong knit and active group of local Armenians who have shown me a different side to the same culture. They are always willing to join and participate in our events, sometimes with even more enthusiasm than some of our interns. We laugh, we joke, we dance (not so well I might add). But most importantly, we realize that there is nothing more important than forming a strong bond with our fellow Armenians.

In the beginning, the internship was the main reason I came to Moscow. I wanted to experience life in the working world. I was so interested and eager to work in an international company that I thought anything else I got out of the program was just an added bonus. I didn’t realize that my internship would fall second to an even greater reward. Being able to experience living in a different country with fellow Armenians from around the world is an amazing opportunity. We are different, but at the same time we understand each other on a deeper level. We realize that, although we might come from the US, Canada, France, Bulgaria, or London, we are first and foremost Armenian.

During these six weeks, we have a jam-packed schedule. Our week usually starts off with Armenian dance class. Although our looks say otherwise, if you were to judge us on our dancing skills, we are the farthest thing from being Armenian. I guess that trait skipped a generation. Apart from being rhythmically challenged, we still enjoy learning Kochari and dancing to traditional Armenian music. Russian Language class is our second activity and is that a trip. I thought learning French was a challenge. Nevertheless, we always put our best foot forward and try our best.

Our voyage to St. Petersburg was amazing. It was our time to unwind, relax, and experience Russia’s “Northern Capital.” It was an interesting and educational trip, filled with sightseeing at Peterhof and Hermitage, boat rides along the Neva River, and Vartavar with locals at the Armenian church.

All in all, I’d like to thank the special people I have met through this program, interns and volunteers alike. You guys made it possible for me to look past this city and truly enjoy Moscow. A special thanks to our coordinators, Lusine and Lilit, who have put in an absurd amount of time and effort into making this program an unforgettable experience. We are eternally grateful for all your hard work..

YSIP Interns’ Memorable Journey to Artsakh

Bella Arutyunyan, a student at UCLA, is participating in our Yerevan Summer Intern Program now. Read on for her touching and exciting experiences with local youth during the group’s recent visit to Karabakh:

One of the best experiences this summer was getting the chance to get out of the city and take a four-day trip to Artsakh. Everyone kept telling me how beautiful the wilderness was going to be and how much I was going to love it. In all honesty, however, I didn’t necessarily think I could find any connection to a piece of land and a people I didn’t know much about. I knew about the war and the ongoing conflict and had heard lectures about the struggle. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from being in Armenia, it’s how important it is to see things with your own eyes because stories alone aren’t enough.

My favorite part of the entire trip was when we went to Gandzasar. The scenery was beautiful just like all the other monasteries we visited. But that’s not what made it special. While sitting on the ledge and enjoying the view we spotted a group of about 8 kids. We asked them what they were doing there and they told us they were participating in a “jambar” [camp].This was my first time hearing “bar-bar,” the dialect spoken by locals and although I had been warned about it, I was still taken back at my complete lack of understanding. They were able to also speak in Eastern Armenian and after a few more minutes of speaking to them, a crowd began to form. They were excited to hear that some of us were from Los Angeles, and kept asking about Hollywood where the movies were made. We laughed, and told them it wasn’t that great. One of the girls was playing music on her phone and the alpha male among them, Narek, asked us if we had heard the music. We asked him to show us his dance moves and without hesitation, a circle formed and he began showing us “tectonic” dancing. This was some crazy dancing and really entertaining for us all. A couple of other boys joined in and also started break-dancing. It didn’t take much longer after this for their shyness to fade along with any walls separating our worlds. We followed them to their campsite, which was directly adjacent to the church. There were at least 50 kids there. A soccer match began with the boys and those not participating cheered their respective teams on. I went over to the opposite side where the kids were cheering. The amount of positive energy spewing out of them was incredibly contagious. Instead of only supporting their friends, they chanted “USA” and “AGBU” for our interns.

I asked them to sing for me and without any reluctance they joined hands and began to sing “Yerevan Erebouni.” I swayed along with them and Narek asked me to tango with him to the song. My cheeks were burning from smiling so much at this point. A larger crowd formed and they continued singing songs. One boy in particular, David, brought chills down our spine with his amazing voice. He stood there proud, with a sense of maturity and understanding way beyond his 10-year old frame. He sang “Shushi Yerkuh” [Shushi’s Song] solo with the rest of the kids holding hands and swaying along. Our group was in awe with their cameras in hand trying to capture the magic of the moment.

I asked if I could see where they were staying and they excitedly grabbed hold of my hands and made me run with them for the tour. They showed me their dorm style rooms and then took me to the kitchen. In true Armenian nature, I was offered fresh nazook and chocolate milk. We then went upstairs to their activities room. A few games of checkers began and the rest of the kids started showing us their dance moves again in the “discotech.” Within five minutes a dance party broke out. It was 4 p.m. and 90 degrees but that didn’t stop anyone. I definitely hadn’t seen anything like this before. Nor had I been around kids with so much life, or as I like to say, “jigar.” They were also really interested in our Ray-Ban sunglasses. They kept asking if they could wear them for pictures. They posed with their arms crossed and tilted the camera to a 45-degree angle when taking the picture, typical of any 13 year old. One of the interns also realized how excited they were by the glasses and gladly presented hers to Narek, the boy who won everyone’s heart with his charisma.

I wish I could explain how happy I was during the two hours we spent there. We weren’t doing what was on our planned schedule but no one minded. We told our coordinator we wanted to stay there with the kids. It was apparent how much everyone was enjoying themselves. Sitting back and listening to them sing and watching the boys play soccer against the backdrop of the amazing scenery with the church bells ringing is an image I never want to leave my mind. It was silly but my eyes couldn’t help but water up. In that moment, I remembered why I had wanted to come to Armenia so badly and how much I had to learn from these kids and the people here. It made me realize the importance of connections like these and the joy to be shared. These kids were not kin, but could very well be our little brothers and sisters. Artsakh finally became a real place to me. The stories and the lives that were affected by the continuous struggle came to life. The importance in coming here was not just to see the beauty of the land but also to get to know the people. It may have been a short experience but it was definitely a defining one that I’m so thankful for one that allowed me to a form a connection with the land and the people of Artsakh..

MSIP Intern Reflects on a Trip of Beauty

Moscow Summer Internship Program (MSIP) student Tatevik Sargsyan took a moment to remember the stunning city she encountered during her group’s trip to St. Petersburg in July.

From Russia with Love
Growing up in Armenia and having had my share of Russian history, I was excited to see St. Petersburg, Russia’s famous “Window to the West.” Since childhood I’ve been told that the city dazzles with its rich culture, striking architecture, enormous museums, and of course, the Kirov (now Mariinsky) ballet. The prospect of being able to share this amazing experience with my newly found Armenian friends made me anticipate it that much more.

Our journey to St. Petersburg started in the morning and on a very interesting note, a downpour. However, nothing could break our spirits. The trip to St. Petersburg traditionally made overnight on the “sleeping train,” was upgraded to a ride on the new high speed train Sapsan, with the maximum speed of 250km/h, which cut our journey to as little as four hours. Having arrived in the afternoon we were all a little bit tired. As we stepped out from the train station, we found ourselves immediately on the famous Nevsky Prospekt that cuts through the historical center of the city.

The ride to the hotel was really short as it was situated in the courtyard of St. Catherine’s Armenian church, one of the two Armenian churches positioned perfectly on Nevsky Prospekt. The façade of the church combines elements of both baroque architecture and traditional Armenian details. So as not to lose time, we decided to start our quest immediately. As we strolled down the streets, I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful architecture: every building we passed was like a monument. The first stop was the famous Dom Knigi bookstore located in one of the most beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg. Directly opposite it was the monumental Kazansky Cathedral.

The city was founded by one of Russia’s great emperors, Peter the Great. When he built this city on a swamp his subjects simply laughed at him but when it was declared the new capital, they were dissatisfied. Unlike Moscow’s red bricks, golden domes and strict demeanor, St. Petersburg’s network of canals and baroque architecture give the city a kind of a warm and somewhat Italian flavor. No doubt it is often called the Venice of the East. I was a little bit sad that we had missed the peak of the legendary White Nights (in June)—Beliye Nochi as the Russians call them. Still the first few days the sky stayed bright till 11 o’clock at night. We spent that night on a boat cruise through the heart of the midnight city, watching the spectacle of the Neva River bridges opening.

The following morning promised to be highly productive. We were able to visit Peterhof—the Russian Versailles, a reminder of the beauty that a man can create. I found myself in a kingdom of fountains. The view to the Baltic Sea was highly appreciated. The amazing pictures we took will always remind me of the magical hours spent there.

The other highlights of our trip were the enormous and impressive Palace Square with the Winter Palace, the old residence of Russian tsars—nowadays mostly known as the main building of Hermitage Museum; St Isaac’s Cathedral—an architectural marvel; and the enthralling Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The pictures taken in the rain from the observation walkway at the base of the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral were both chilling and breathtaking. Another stop was the first structure to be built in Peter the Great’s Petersburg: the Peter and Paul Fortress—an emblem of the current city.
At noon we were hugely surprised to hear the loud cannon that is shot daily—a tradition started in the 19th century.

A whole day spent at the state Hermitage Museum was not enough to see even one percent of the whole collection. Three million artifacts of world culture can be admired by anyone interested in history and art. Experts say that if you were to spend a minute at every exhibit it would still take seven years before you will have seen them all.
All of these incredible experiences wouldn’t have been the same without the most adventurous, fun-loving group of people I have ever known. During this internship program, I have found true friends, who have encouraged me to try new and interesting things, who share the same passions as me and who have showed me the importance of being an Armenian and of being proud of it every minute. I can’t wait for the next few weeks..