(Author’s note: in the following article contains some generalizations on rural Armenian culture. All of this is true to my experience here, but none of it should be taken as universally true of all people in Armenia, or Syunik province, or my host village, or even all the people on my street. Rather than explode my wordcount by filling this essay with qualifiers, dithering, equivocations, and clarifiers which envelop so much modern writing like a fog of imprecision, I’ve stuck this note at the front. Thanks for reading.)
I woke up late on Monday morning, after a lousy night of sleeping in fits and starts, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth from dryness and an ache lodged somewhere on the inner wall of my skull. I needed a shave, a hot breakfast to fill an empty stomach, an aspirin, a change of clothes, and a cup of coffee big enough to drown a rodent before I started classes in an hour. I managed to get three out of those five things done, then set out for my half-mile walk to school while what seems like the entire village conspires to get in their cars and drive past me so that their greeting honks can grip my spinal cord like a tassel and ring my brain like a bell. I arrived only ten minutes late, at 8:40 AM. I didn’t mean to be out late on a Sunday night, and I certainly didn’t mean to trash the antemeridian half of my Monday. I didn’t mean to eat so much questionable food, either, or drink so much hard liquor, but the choice wasn’t mine to make, because on the night before I went to a child’s birthday party.
No, the children there weren’t drinking. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some of them do at these things, although it’s usually just a half-glass of moonshine, which is a highly effective tactic for keeping your kids away from alcohol for years, and it lets them join in on a round of toasting so they can feel mature.
Holding a glass during a toast is good exercise, too. Armenians give toasts the way Russians write novels: lengthy, full of changes in perspective, packed with subplots and shifting nicknames, and dense with commentary on the state of the harvest, the state of the country, war and peace, love and death, the human condition, that sort of thing. Sometimes a toast is an impromptu composition, other times it’s a string of formulaic phrases of good luck, health is the most important thing, may your eyes be bright, world peace, and so on, but either way, it’s got to be long. A minute is common—I mean a real minute, a full sixty seconds—two minutes isn’t unusual, and I’ve heard many stories of the five-minute toast, where some school director or community elder, glass held aloft, pontificates for a full count to 300. You’re in for a long evening if someone like that is appointed the tamada, or toastmaster, responsible for all these orations. This isn’t necessarily better than the more informal settings where there isn’t a tamada and people call toasts as they will: if you stay at one of those parties long enough, you’ll be called on to give a toast, a task which, if your Armenian isn’t good or you’ve enjoyed a few too many toasts already, feels a bit like being asked to write a sonnet about photosynthesis in Latin while twelve people look on. Kenatsd!
Even if you’re not drinking, you’ll hear that word kenatsd—the Armenian equivalent of cheers—a lot during these parties, because Armenian villagers, as Xenophon mentioned 24 centuries ago, love their drink. If the medical definition of binge drinking is 5 drinks in two hours, then at site I’ve seen that busted in about half an hour, a feat I never expected or hoped to see again after finishing my undergraduate degree. Things vary by household, but in general, drinking at parties here is heavy by American standards.
This is not helped by the drinks, which for men is either homemade pot-still liquor fermented from local fruits and batting somewhere above 60% alcohol by volume, or, much worse, store-bought vodka that’s about 40% alcohol, 10% water, and 50% industrial cleaning solvents. For women, the drinks are wine and occasionally cognac, but these are only sipped; in general, alcohol is a male endeavor in the villages, and this essay reflects my experiences drinking in the village as a man, in the manly way. I should add that you’re allowed to not drink; like veganism or celibacy, teetotaling is considered a baffling way to spend a life, but its austere logic is respectable, and anybody who bothers you about it is officially being rude, so you can safely ignore them. Worst case, say that you’re taking medicine and can’t drink today.
What you’re not allowed to do, however, is drink at your own pace, with your own limits. I mean drinking too much and too fast for everybody else, of course, which is as rude and unsightly in Armenia as it is anywhere else, but it also applies to drinking less than the rest of the group or drinking something different from the group. Collectivism is stronger and more pervasive than gravity in the villages, and drinking apart from the group is eccentric at best and offensive at worst. This has its own logic, too: shared drinks with toasts represent unity, hospitality, and shared abundance. Quite often, these drinks, like my family’s homemade pear vodka, are literally the fruit of the year’s harvest. Drinking something else or declining to join the toast without an excuse sets you apart from all this goodwill and celebration of work.
At the same time, liking a bit of homemade pear vodka now and then doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re looking to guzzle eight glasses of it on a Tuesday night. I enjoy drinking, and for male volunteers, consuming the local stuff in the local way is an express-lane to site integration. Fortunately, there is a way to moderate your drinking that I like to call the half-shot, which is exactly what it sounds like. Drinking a full 50 mL glass of liquor may be the politest thing to do, but drinking half of it after a toast, or even a third of it, as long as it’s done discreetly, is perfectly respectable. By the fourth or fifth glass, several men have usually switched to half-shots, or less. If you’re near the host, you’ll probably get an earful about it, but this is usually done in a joking spirit. (If the host is also the moonshine-maker, I recommend calling his drink too strong for human consumption; this is considered a great compliment.)
The other major thing to watch out for is leaving your glass empty; if you do, somebody will fall over themselves to fill it back up. It’s a cultural thing: like many cultures, Armenia has a horror of empty plates and cups, as it suggests that the guest’s appetite exceeds the host’s generosity. An empty glass is a challenge: is that all you got? If you’re done drinking, or just slowing it down with half-shots, don’t be afraid when your glass is filled again; I’ve seen a man fill his empty glass, then announce that he’s done drinking for the night. And he really was. When you’re truly done drinking for the night and don’t want to draw attention to it, I’ve found that the sweet spot is a little less than half a glass—too little to qualify for a proper drink, but enough to keep the host from refilling the glass.
And you will eventually quit drinking at these parties. There’s no fixed limit, but usually after four or five toasts, when men start taking half-shots, it’s acceptable to taper off. Within a couple rounds, you can just raise your glass to every toast then set your glass down. There are only two hazards that come during the tapering off: the toast in your honor, and the rule of multiple refusals. The first one is a devious trick that’s been pulled on me a few times. As the night goes on and the number of praiseworthy topics are exhausted, the desperate toastmaster’s eye settles on the eccentric American guy in the corner. This one’s just mean; who would refuse a toast to his own health? You can’t not drink to that. If there’s a good trick to counter this one, I’d love to hear it.
The other one, which applies just as strongly as food, is the rule of multiple refusals. A corollary to the no empty plates/smother your guests with food and drink policy is the guest’s obligation to make the host feel as though they’re winning a battle of wills. You can never look too eager to eat or drink at an Armenian party, since a hungry guest is easy to please—too easy. Hosts like a challenge. The ideal homemade vodka or handmade birthday cake is one that’s so overwhelmingly good, the guest will risk a burst liver or diabetes just to have another portion. And so it’s standard procedure for guests to insist that they couldn’t possibly have another, but the host insists; no, says the guest, this time they’re really done, it’s the end, but the host really must insist on it; no, no, no, says the guest, another portion will literally kill me, but the host won’t hear it; listen here, you inconsiderate, glutton-making cake pusher, says the guest, this isn’t some kind of etiquette judo where I’m secretly angling for another slice to satisfy your crazy ego trip, I am full, stuffed, engorged, my stomach is kaput, there is no room and never will be, I am finished with the consumption of nutrients for sustenance until the heat death of the universe, but fine, if this will keep you from bothering me anymore then yes, goddammit, I’ll have one, and say, this is good and I like the texture of the frosting, how’d you get it like that? As an Armenian friend once told me, this give-and-take is The Game, and The Game is so ubiquitous here that sometimes your host doesn’t know that you don’t know that you’re playing when you say you’re finished. They can’t conceive of it until at least the third refusal. The important thing is to make sure the host is loudly seen offering to keep feeding you—as long as everybody knows that, despite the host’s heroic intervention, their guest is actually starving himself on purpose.
We’re almost done here, but one last question hovers over the proceedings: why all this drinking at a child’s birthday party, anyway? The child in question was my host-niece, who turned five. As far as I can tell, she’s no raging alcoholic, and neither were her siblings or cousins at the party, so why did I wind up drinking myself into a hangover? The short answer is that, whether they realize it or not, in my village, parties are as much about the recipient as they are about the people around them who make it possible. There’s a particular Armenian tradition I adore, called magharich: when something good happens in your life—the birth of a child, purchasing a car, getting engaged—you celebrate by bringing food, chocolate, wine, and so on to your family, or coworkers, or friends. The point is to acknowledge that your fortune is not yours alone, and would mean nothing without the people who love and support you. They celebrate your good tidings, and you celebrate them. You can see this attitude operating throughout Armenian life. At a gathering of the whole family for the birthday of the youngest child, this was an opportunity to honor the family that made this little girl’s life—five happy and adorable years, so far—what it is. So the women get together in the kitchen and marvel at my host-sister’s personal cream-frosting recipe, the kids invent nonsensical card games or play with balloons, and as for the men, where I have the honor of sitting, we talk about fertilizer prices, automobile parts, marriages, deaths, and whatever wonderful thing in our lives or our family that we should celebrate with this next round of drinks. And that’s worth the headache. Kenatsd!