Ani Hovhannisyan

“If you're bored with life, there is something wrong”

There are foreign citizens living among us who work in our country and perform their official obligations. Generally, it is their official activities which are the center of attention. But they also have their personal life and live with their personal feelings. What follows is an interview with Marie Yovanovitch, who has been serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia for over a year now. We talked to Ambassador Yovanovitch about her life here in Armenia. You have been working in many countries and you invest a bit of yourself in each as a result. Which country, would you say, has demanded the most of you in your professional career, “has devoured” most your life? The first thing I'd say is that I'm an American and wherever I am in a world, I am representing the United States and I am representing United States interests. Thus, I think the country that I have served and represented throughout my life has been the United States of America. Right now of course I am in Armenia and so I am devoting 110 % of my efforts to improving U.S.-Armenia relations. Our relations are strong but there is always more that can be done and it's the job of the ambassador to try to ensure that that is happening on economic issues, on political issues and on security issues and, of course, humanitarian assistance issues. Armenia is a new country for you. If you compare what your life was like a year ago and what it is now, what are the differences that you can point out to us? The difference is that a year ago I had only been here a couple of months. And now I have been here over a year and as you know, when you move to a new home, when you start a new job, and in my case you move to a new country as well, it's really hard. And so you never know the answer to any question, you don't know anybody. It's a challenge. But now I've been here for a year. So I actually know the answers to some of the questions that I am asked. If there is an issue we need to deal with, I know who to call in the Armenian government and I have friends here. So it's completely different than it was a year ago. Some people who are not diplomats occasionally say that they get tired, bored of their routine life. Is it possible for someone to get bored with changes? That's an interesting question. My mother brought me up. She said, “If you're bored with life, there is something wrong”. For me change makes life more interesting. If I'm doing the same thing every day, it's not as interesting as when you have new challenges to solve, new issues to discuss. And so at least for me I think change is positive. But that's not true for everybody and obviously a lot of change causes a lot of stress. But nevertheless it's the life that I've chosen. How did you come up with the decision to become a diplomat? Was it just your own decision or was someone just helping with advice or guidance? I think we are always influenced by the people around us, but it was my own decision. The reason that I decided to join the State Department and become a U.S. diplomat is that it combines so many of the things that I love. I find history and politics fascinating, as well as international relations and particularly interesting foreign policy. To have an opportunity to participate in those processes I just think it's a privilege. I love traveling and I love everything about traveling. I like new things and I like not knowing exactly what an experience is going to be like. I like trying food, I like seeing cultural sites and I like meeting people. So that is that aspect of the Foreign Service that I really enjoy. But I think the thing that I most value in the career that I've chosen is that no matter where you work, you can make a difference. And you don't have to be an ambassador to make that difference. So, for example, I like meeting student groups.  And sometimes issues that you discuss can make students realize that they too can travel to the United States, they can study in the United States, they too can make a difference in the future of their country. Prior to Armenia, you also served in Kyrgyzstan. Is it easy for an American to work in post-soviet countries? I think it's always a sort of a challenge when you're not in a culture that is your own. And so you have to work extra hard to figure out what are the cultural norms and what people expect, what people like and what is potentially offensive to people. But I don't think that's unique to Americans living in a foreign country or unique to the post-soviet world. I think that whenever you're in a different culture, you need to try to really be attuned to what is happening around you. I'll be the first to admit that I'm sure I don't always get all the nuances. Even after being here for over a year there are still things that are new to me. But that's why it's so important to listen to our local employees who know the culture from the inside and can provide really good advice. Can you give our readers an example of something in Armenia that you found really surprising and new? Something which made you seek the advice of your local colleagues? Perhaps one of the things that has surprised me is the role of women in Armenian society. I think most people here in Armenia would agree with me that women are underrepresented whether it's in the national assembly, whether it's in the cabinet, or even perhaps in other work places. It’s important, I think, to understand the sensitivities of a traditional culture, even as we try to work with women to provide opportunities for their advancement. I think it’s important for every country, every society,  to draw on all available recourses and women of course make up more than 50 % of the human capacity of Armenia. So I know that there are some smart women out there who can make a contribution to the arts, to business, to politics. That would make a material difference to Armenia’s future. There are respected traditions of hospitality in Armenia. Do you organize receptions for your friends? Do you ever cook and invite friends over? I do. I am sure you’ve heard of the American holiday Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving I had some friends here in Armenia over to share our American cultural traditions. And what kind of meal did you prepare for them? What’s the favorite dish that we’d see you making these days? I don’t do a lot of cooking right now, I have to be honest. But I do love to cook, because I also love to eat. And I make this absolutely wonderful chicken dish called “Chicken marbea”. It’s perfect for Armenia actually because it has plums and apricots and all sort of things. We have seen you out and about at many public places. So, what’s your favorite leisure time activity? Do you attend different cultural events; are you just going to those events because you have to? What are the things you like to do on your own “free” time? My favorite thing to do is read. And as a social activity my favorite thing to do is to sit with friends and talk and have a glass of wine. You are right, I do go out a lot and many of the things that I do are work-related but I really enjoy what I do.  I love going to concerts and we are lucky that we have a very active cultural affairs section that has put on some really incredible performances. I also love art whether it is contemporary art where you can go to somebody’s studio and see what they’re creating, or whether it’s in museums. And Armenia is very rich in both traditions as you know. There is a lot of talent here both musically and in the arts, and so again I’m lucky to be here because I can pursue my interests. What type of books are you now reading and what’s your favorite book? And also you said that you enjoy going to concerts. What type of music do you like? I read all sort of things, much of it honestly for work. But I enjoy reading history and I also very much enjoy reading novels. The most recent book I read was called “My Grandmother”. It is written by a Turkish woman who found out as an adult that she was at least one part Armenian and the story of her grandmother. And I found it to be a very moving book and I have since lent it to other people. And as for music, I love jazz. That’s probably my favorite kind of music. But I like all sorts of music. I grew up a kid in the U.S. with rock-n-roll and I love rock-n-roll, especially the music that I grew up with. Do you like dancing to rock-and-roll? I do. When you are sad, who is the first person that you would go to, and if you are in low mood, how do you try to overcome it? Well, I try not to get sad. But I talk to my friends and I talk to my family, especially my Mom, who has been a wonderful support to me my entire life. And how do I lift myself out of a bad mood? The rational part of me says you need to go outside, you need to exercise, but the other side of me which most often wins, says, “Why don’t you eat a cookie?” So, almost always I will have something to eat. But sometimes the better side of me wins and sometimes I also exercise. You look great in great shape. But you said that you always eat something when you are in low spirits. So how do you manage to keep so fit? I do try to exercise but mostly on week-ends. And what’s your dream? For me while I’m here in Armenia, what I really hope is that Armenia will be able to resolve the issues it has with its neighbors. For the future of Armenia it’s important to have open borders whether it’s with Turkey or whether it’s resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and opening the border with Azerbaijan. Moving forward on both processes is important and the U.S. government is certainly prepared to provide whatever support it can to facilitate those processes. So, this is your personal dream, right? For right now here in Armenia, yes.