The Story of the Missing Key - Adapting to Life in Armenia

I’ve met many missionaries who have prepared their entire lives to live overseas. They eagerly anticipate the moment where they receive their final approval and book their airline tickets to finally go reside in a distant land.

That was not me.

Sure, I was enthusiastic during the process. BUT…when it came down to the last few months before our eminent departure, I was anything but ready to go. I suddenly could imagine what young bachelors call “cold feet” on their wedding day.

Did I really realize what I was committing to when I said yes to this “missions stuff?”

Did I really want to leave my family, job and life in America behind for the next great adventure? Predictability is kinda nice.

Was it really God who was asking me to live and work in Armenia?

But, if you know me well, you can probably discern how I was raised. I can still imagine my father standing across from me in our blue gingham wallpapered kitchen.

“Olivia. If you said that you would do something, you are going to do it and do it well until it’s finished. You committed. That’s it. No backing out.”

OK, Dad. I boarded a plane for Armenia on June 16, 2003.

The first few months for me, in Armenia, were horrible.

I remember sitting on our balcony and looking out over the entire city center: ugly soviet apartment buildings; smog from old Russian jigolees (cars); honking, honking, honking; old women climbing steps with bags full of outdoor market-produce; young women making their way through broken sidewalks in stiletto heels.

I sat with my legs tucked up underneath me and thought, “What in the world am I doing here? I hate it here. I want to leave.”

Poor Nick. This was everything he had dreamed about since he was 17. He had spent years studying missiology in university as preparation for this day. He valeted cars at a fancy restaurant and substitute taught in the inner city classrooms of Minneapolis to make enough money to pay off his school debt so we could pursue his dream: missions.

Then he married me- a girl that can’t last 4 weeks.

I remember one day we were walking back from paying our bills at the old Soviet post office that had an eerie and huge Lenin head statue in the corner.

Nick said, “Olivia, you are more important than anything to me. You’re more important than missions, or Armenia. God can use us anywhere. I just ask that you give Armenia six months. If at the end of six months, you feel like you do today, then I will, without any shame, tell all of our supporters and organization that we are returning home.”

Wow. My Grandma was right when she said she KNEW that I had married a truly good man.

The freedom Nick gave me helped my entrapped soul start to breathe a bit easier and to enjoy Armenia for what it was.

Then there was the week when we had no water. We tried going for a few days without showers. The dishes began to pile up. Finally, a good American friend had mercy on us. She invited us to her home for a wonderful meal and let us finally wash off our daily grime in her shower.

It was late. 11 pm. My long hair was finally clean, but still wet, when we left our friend’s home and sat in a taxi parked on a nearby street.

He safely delivered us home, and then Nick put his hand in his pocket to pull out our apartment door’s key and…no key!

This key was huge. It was about 4 inches long and reminded me of some old Victorian key that you would picture sticking out of a wardrobe in a C.S. Lewis novel. It was heavy, and golden, and big, and it had fallen out of Nick’s pocket.

It was gone.

After calling our friend and surveying the ground, we realized that the key had remained in the taxi. The problem: we hadn’t an idea on how to find the taxi. Yerevan is full of private citizens who turn their cars into taxis. We had not called a taxi service, but had seen him on the side of the road and jumped in. There was absolutely no way of finding him.

That was it for me. No water. No key. No phone number for our landlord. Midnight.

I sat down on the curb and slumped over.

Armenia is a late-night culture. True, it’s midnight. But in Yerevan, even many of the small shops were still open.

I had sat down right in front of a one room, family-owned, convenience store. The storeowner, a grandma, noticed my look of despair and immediately came to help me.

I didn’t understand her. I didn’t know the word for “key” or “lost.” She could just tell that we had a problem.

She pulled us into her shop and through a back door that was an entrance into her apartment.

“Moment.” She kept using her very limited English repeatedly.

She picked up her old green Soviet rotary phone from the 1970s and called her granddaughter – a girl who had studied some English.

“My grandma says that you look very sad and she wants to know how to help.”

I explained our story and handed the phone back to the grandma and waited for the translation.

“No problem.” She patted us with a reassuring smile.

She then proceeded to call her adult son who soon arrived in his car, happy to help. He drove Nick all around Yerevan looking for the taxicab. He drove him back to the spot where we had found the taxi. No luck. The other taxi drivers parked on the street recognized the cab Nick described and said that our driver would be back, in the same spot, on Monday – two days later.

Finally, we returned to the hallways outside our apartment. It’s now nearly 1 am, and we decide to knock on our neighbors’ door. We had not even had time to meet them yet.

They heard our story, and suddenly the whole three-floor apartment building came alive as we witnessed the Armenian community get in action.

Every family came out of their apartment, in their bathrobes and slippers. They were all trying to help these poor young Americans get back inside their home.

Finally, one of them knew of someone to call to find our landlady’s number. Our landlady, you see, is quite famous in Yerevan. She is a stage actress with a deep smoky voice who always wore heels and leopard print.

They found her. She was on her way with the second key at 1 am.

Although we had not experienced it yet, we knew that the Armenians are known for their hospitality. Our neighbors went all out. They started serving us Armenian coffee (the non-filtered kind), tea and cookies in our hallway as we waited. They tried to pronounce our names and discover our story.

Through our limited Armenian that night, we became friends. We became a part of our community.

I suddenly realized that we had not moved to a hostile culture that was waiting to eat and destroy us. Rather, we had moved to Yerevan - a large capital city that was more like a family that was willing to help anyone in need.

True, they may nearly run you over when you’re crossing the street. But, when it comes to truly helping someone in need, the Armenians always come through.

I suddenly felt safe in the hands of these people. And, something changed in me that day. We delivered flowers to the grandma storeowner and began to chat and have tea with our neighbors.

Six months came and went, and I found myself falling in love with the people and longing to do anything I could to help serve them.

The last eight years have been the greatest adventure of our lives. And, it all started with a huge, golden key.