Every week last summer in Armenia, I walked up the street named after a celebrated Russian author to my local grocer. It was always a hot day, and the grocer was always dressed in a cut-off T-shirt, sometimes hauling in fruit, sometimes dangling a cigarette in this mouth, but always ready for a chat.
If my appearance didn't give away the fact that I wasn't a local, my accent certainly did. Maybe that made talking to me more intriguing, but between laundry detergent and the best apricots I have ever tasted, he would ask about where I came from, and what I thought about living in Yerevan as he totaled up my bill.
After several visits, I became a regular at his store. And after becoming a regular, perhaps a new acquaintance. One day with a big smile, he said I should come by for a cup of coffee and conversation. It would be nice, he said, to get to know each other. The request felt odd.
Back in Los Angeles, I had never spoken more than a few words, much less made eye contact with the employees working at the grocery store I shopped at. Most of the time, I never even had to speak to anyone at all, with the exciting and sometimes frustrating new technology known as “self-checkout.”
I politely smiled and mentioned that it would in fact be nice, but I didn't mean it. Internally my mind was working over time trying to figure out why this man I bought groceries from would ever want to engage with me beyond our normal transaction of him supplying me with groceries and me handing over some money.
That was the last day I ever went to his store. When I left my apartment, I made sure I walked on the opposite side of the street to avoid him.
I thought a lot about his invitation and my reaction to it and how it said more about my upbringing than I first thought. In the Caucasus, this was seemingly normal behavior. It was a place where families invited strangers into their homes and wined and dined them lavishly without ever asking for their name — a place where there was no such thing as “invasion” of privacy when it came to knowing your neighbors and the intricate details of their lives.
In America, this sort of behavior would raise suspicion and alarm. There was an innocence behind the invitation from my Armenian grocer, and a deep need and longing for community.
Last week, the New York Times published a piece about a Greek island off the coast of Turkey called Ikaria, where people “forget to die.” The island boasts the largest amount of healthy people over 90 in the world.
Between factors like local and healthy diet, mid-afternoon sleep habits and a hilly landscape that lends to unintended exercise, the social structure of the island's inhabitants — where feeling lonely is unheard of and every night consists of good music, conversation and coffee or wine — was the glue that held them all together, and perhaps propelled them into being centenarians.
As one Ikarian doctor who was interviewed said, “It’s not a ‘me’ place. It’s an ‘us’ place.”
I remembered my grocer and his invitation. I remembered how often I forget about the importance of community, of belonging, of support, of how working to make things better for all means things get better for yourself, too. Perhaps I should have accepted a coffee and a good talk after all.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.