The Teacher of Vanadzor

by Nathan James Thomas

On the road from Yerevan to Tbilisi, two travelers stop in the charming yet disheveled Armenian city of Vanadzor to pay a visit to a local high school gym teacher.

It was a school day in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third largest city, scarcely a tenth of the size of the rowdy capital, Yerevan. Back in the capital, we’d watched Ferraris jostled with Mercedes Benzes on grandiose streets where the women puffed up their lips with liters of filler and the men’s fake Rolexes rattled as they reached into their fake Armani pants for their equally swollen wallets. Here, it was quiet. The streets were subdued, with that disheveled, chip-packet-blown-in-the-breeze outskirts feeling even right in the center. Queues outside bank machines stretched into the road, the shops impossibly dark inside with gray walls behind dirty windows. 

Barely ten minutes walk past the central square, and the city seemed to give up completely. The paved roads and sidewalks abruptly ceased, and dirt roads took over, leading through soot-stained apartment blocks where people hung their washing outside of the window. The cars we passed seemed to be derelict until you got closer and saw that there was someone inside, smoking a cigarette perhaps, glowering at the street.

We, two grown men, neither of us school teachers, both of us far from home, were heading towards the local high school. Our appointment was with the gym teacher, a man whose name we did not know. All we knew was that he was the father of a friend of my traveling companion, all of us expats in Poland. When the father heard we would be venturing into his home country, he insisted on meeting us. We had just one hour between buses on the road from Yerevan to Tbilisi, and it was the middle of a school day. No matter! Come to the school. Does he speak English? No matter! He will invite the school’s English teacher. We couldn’t say no. So we didn’t.

The school was a squat white building at the end of the dirt road. In front, a handful of bored-looking teenagers, boys and girls both, lazily practiced military drills led by a serious-faced soldier in uniform who seemed unbothered by the rolled eyes and sideways grins of his cadets. We were expected. A student, a boy maybe 15 years old, met us in front of the school. “Hello,’’ he said shyly. We tried to make conversation as he led us through the hallways, but each question we asked was met with little more than an embarrassed grin.

Entering the gym teacher’s office, the first thing we noticed was the smoke. The gym teacher, the man we had come to see, had a whistle around his neck. His office looked out onto a small wooden-floored gym, the kind American kids play dodgeball on in the movies, and he was puffing on a cigarette. He left the cigarette still lit in the ashtray and bounded to greet us with lethal handshakes and big smiles. The boy, our supposed translator, stood there nonplussed, staring at the floor. Soon, a girl joined, all bright smiles and confidence and acted as a much more effective translator for the formalities of greetings and hellos.

We sat down in the office. Above us were a constellation of trophies, as well as older framed diplomas in Armenian, some emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle – Armenia was in the Soviet Union when the teacher would have been a student decades before. A video call was placed to the teacher’s daughter, who giggled with good-natured embarrassment at the strangeness of the situation, her father in her old school from a different life happily chumming with her new friend from her adult, professional world far, far away. 

Another man walked in, also in his 50s, with thick, white hair. He wore a gray blazer and strutted with the confidence of a politician. He shook our hands and greeted us in English. This was the English teacher! He began to translate excited conversation from the gym teacher. 

When was our bus to Georgia? Well, he had arranged it for us with his daughter, we were hoping he would tell us. We thought it was soon? Yes, it is in half an hour. But don’t worry. They will wait. Have you eaten? No, we would be thrilled to join you. But there is no time! 

Ok. How about a drink? It was the middle of the day, perhaps it was Tuesday, and we were in a school. Sure! But I don’t have any vodka! Next time, you come to his house, you stay longer, we drink together! Ok! He called a taxi for us and watched its progress on his phone as it edged closer to the school.

The gym teacher walked with us back through the dark corridors past photos of serious-faced students, past the lazy military drill, to the dirt road. To our surprise, he hopped in the taxi with us, sitting in the front. Before the taxi took off, the teacher had lit a cigarette, offering one to the driver, and he puffed on it as we drove off, turning to us and grinning and speaking enthusiastically in Armenian. We grinned along stupidly and nodded at his statements, agreeing to lord knows what.

A minivan was waiting for us on the side of the highway outside a corrugated iron petrol station. The teacher paid the taxi and leaped out, giving us huge bear hugs as the bus driver, small, wiry, and angry, gave us murderous looks. The smile in the teacher’s eyes, the pure joy of seeing us, made us wish more than ever that we had planned better and stayed longer. 

On the bus, we made friends with an Armenian “investor” drenched in fake brands who would later hit me up on Facebook, pitching a dubious investment opportunity. In the back was a group of Iranian students, girls in their early 20s, who took command of the music and sang along to catchy Persian pop. A Tajikistani woman in a hijab traveled with her small baby, who was fascinated by me. She was delayed for some hours at the Georgian border as we waited outside in the heat. We arrived in Tbilisi before dark.

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