In this week’s “Parts Unknown” Tony travels to Armenia with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian. They talked about the country’s painful history, the strength of its diaspora, and those who are shaping its future. They also took a drive in a Volga and sang to a pumpkin. Roads & Kingdoms co-founder Nathan Thornburgh and stand-up comedian Jennifer Neal rehash the episode.
Jennifer Neal: Can I just say that when I saw the episode was going to be in Armenia, my first thought was, “Please, no Kardashians.” And Serj Tankian shows up as Tony’s sidekick. I remember screaming with excitement.
Nathan Thornburgh: Ye of little faith. I was never worried. He showed a picture of the Kardashians in the episode, but then he Voldemorted them. He didn’t say their name.
But let’s start at the beginning. That first scene of driving, with Serj in that classic Volga, was just dope.
Neal: It was just this really old, nondescript, inconspicuous, Communist-era vehicle. It had a whole personality of its own.
Thornburgh: I was in Russia last week and had this whole conversation with some friends about the various classes of Soviet cars. That Volga was the Bentley of the Soviet Union. They’re the very best of Soviet automotive technology.
Neal: If you’re going to live in an era of Communist oppression, that’s the car you want to drive.
Thornburgh: Chances are, if you’re driving that car, you’re the oppressor.
Neal: Definitely not anymore. It’s the people’s car.
Thornburgh: Tony and Serj sit down and have their first meal—braised lamb shank for Tony and vegetable manti dumplings for Serj. What did you know about Armenian food before watching this episode?
Neal: Not a lot, but because I’m slightly familiar with the region, I would have expected a lot of roast lamb and a thin and delicate pastry of some variety.
Thornburgh: I think this episode delivered all of your Armenian food dreams—and then it added a stuffed pumpkin.
Neal: That I did not anticipate. It’s a pumpkin with its own song. I was dubious, like, “Is this just for show?”
Thornburgh: Right? But that woman was able to just kind of nudge Serj, and he started singing along.
Neal: I was expecting him to bust out System of a Down vocals. He’s like, “No, I am serene, and I’m harmonizing.”
Thornburgh: I want to see the System of a Down cover of the decorative gourd song.
Neal: We’ll put in that request.
Thornburgh: Both this dinner and then the interview with the historian on the stairs of the monument made me think people are so damn well spoken about Armenian history.
Neal: I was really impressed with what I learned about Armenia during the episode. They teach chess in schools, they grow up reading Russian, English, and Armenian. I was kind of blown away by my ignorance about the place.
Thornburgh: They call it the nerd republic for a reason, I guess. There’s this sense that, during Soviet times, Armenia is where a lot of research happened and where a lot of the chess masters came from. Armenians were not necessarily the ones picked to serve in the tank battalions. They were there to solve problems.
When we talk about the Armenian genocide and ensuing diaspora—Armenians went and just kind of kicked ass all over the earth. They make shit happen wherever they end up. That’s not the destiny they chose, but that’s certainly how it’s turned out.
Neal: I couldn’t help comparing it to the Holocaust and thinking about how Jewish communities are thriving all over the world. Education is a really big part of the culture. Now looking at Armenians’ suffering and how the official Turkish policy is to deny it was genocide. But Armenians are just kicking ass and taking names. And this isn’t something that I really knew about before I watched this episode.
Thornburgh: There was a wonderful little spot right at the end of the conversation in Mariam’s grandmother’s home with the stuffed pumpkin where Mariam says that this is a very interesting moment in our history and that change is happening. As we know, before this episode aired, change actually came.
Neal: A whole bunch of stuff happened that I was not anticipating. I thought it was just goat and sheep country.
Thornburgh: No, there’s some shit to work through here. And Armenians are exceptionally tuned into the darkness of their past because they have to convince everybody that this was a genocide. And Tony has this way of guiding you through tough topics and then somehow pulling you back out. I was very affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh scene where they’re just kind of sitting on a hillside in a disputed territory.
This show goes into the darkness, comes back out, and then there is, like, apricot vodka on the table.
Neal: And kindness and smiling and hugs.
I don’t mean to overly romanticize it, but there is something to the idea that those struggles do build character and identity because you survived. Not only did you survive, but you are thriving. You invest heavily in education and in technology, and it shows. I think that speaks to the values of the culture, which is why I want them to adopt me.
Thornburgh: Let’s get into a soup in the episode that is one of my personal favorites: khash. It was sort of translated as “bone broth,” which is essentially true, but bone broth feels like a fitness food. Khash is a soup for when you’re getting drunk and also for when you need a hangover cure the next day.
Neal: It’s like an all-purpose dish.
Thornburgh: One of my favorite memories of Tbilisi, Georgia, is going, after a long night of drinking, to a place that served his steaming, nourishing, very fatty bowl of soup at 5 a.m. Somehow all of the sins of the night before were washed away in a flood of beef and fat.
Neal: I feel like most cultures would have some version of this soup?
Thornburgh: Yeah, this is what soup is supposed to do.
So, to wrap it up: I got the feeling that this was a special episode because, among all people on Earth, the Armenians have probably spent the most time, energy, and brainpower trying to get their story out.
Neal: I was impressed with the fact that the Armenian people Tony met with were journalists and members of the Armenian diaspora who had moved back. These people were not catering to any ego. They were talking with Tony like they would anybody who had questions about their country. He was listening and absorbing, and I know he does this pretty often, but it was particularly pronounced in this episode. He allowed the experts to pretty much run this.
Thornburgh: Right. And that second-to-last toast, “Let your feet bring luck to this home.” That’s good. “Let your camera bring luck to this home” would be the good update. Armenia’s neighbors aren’t superpsyched about this episode. If I’m not mistaken, Tony was actually banned from Azerbaijan because he went to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. They’ve got a real itchy trigger finger on those types of things, despite the adorable nature of, say, the border patrol music video from Azerbaijan I sent you a while back. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.