Growing up in an Armenian household, the first language I ever learned to speak and communicate in was Armenian. Before having the ability to comprehend the concepts of nationality or geography, the only world that existed in my small understanding of reality was the world which was spent during my adolescence. Having been raised in Little Armenia (a community within East Hollywood), my grandparent’s apartment complex was a melting pot of immigrants from an amalgamation of various countries. This apartment building served as the blank canvas for what would ultimately become the artwork representing my identity.
Looking back at the seventeen years that were spent in this multicultural enclave in the heart of Hollywood, one can confidently say that the perfect metaphorical categorization of that experience could simply be labeled as living inside a miniature United Nations summit. Though an overwhelming demographic of the building’s residency consisted of immigrants from Armenia; the enclave also saw tenants from France, Nigeria, Romania, Germany, Mexico and Greece. And since Hollywood (like much of Los Angeles) is a city of transplants and frequent visitors, nothing in my life (besides family and close friends) was permanent. It would become apparent from a very young age that many of my fondest memories and relationships over the years were often times temporary and cut short; a grim but common reality entailed in the Hollywood lifestyle.
Coming from a middle-class American upbringing, both my parents worked long hours and as a result I often times wouldn’t see them until nightfall. For the majority of my youth, my grandparents were the ones who shaped and molded me into the person I would eventually become. My grandfather, Gabriel, was indeed a fascinating and intriguing man who’s mere presence and words of wisdom impacted all those who came across him. Having been born in the small town of Vienne, France, he was commonly referred to as “monsieur” by all his friends and family. After the end of the Second World War, his family decided to pack their bags and relocate to Armenia. Though he would end up spending more than twenty years in the Soviet Union, my grandfather always took pride in his French nationality. He would later categorize his family’s decision to immigrate to Armenia after the Second World War as a “great travesty.” From the many distant memories of monsieur Gabriel, my grandfather always spoke of France with such great compassion and romanticism (naturally). He spoke about the village where he was born and the lifestyle which he longed for every waking day of his life since having left as a child. Many years later I came to realize how difficult it must have been for him. Though he had not physically been in France since his youth, he always spoke of it as if he had lived there his entire life with such vivid descriptions and vocabulary. He even went as far as becoming a French citizen in 1997!
Immigrating to the United States however wasn’t always his cup of tea (or wine). He always envisioned himself one day returning and living out his final days in a small petite house in rural Vienne overlooking the Rhône river; the simple French life as he would describe it. Unfortunately for him, most of the family had their hearts set on the idea of moving to America instead. Though everyone knew he was greatly disappointed, he wasn’t a man who complained much. After all, this was a person who he had lived through Nazi occupation and under Joseph Stalin’s reign. Ultimately, a new life in Los Angeles would symbolize something far more meaningful than just a relocation. It illustrated an escape from the hardships of communism which (in the big picture) was something he and my family would be grateful for. Despite all this, France would continue to hold a sacred place in his heart for the remainder of his life. Whether it was an installation of a satellite dish to receive television channels from France or reading his favorite French novels, he frivolously tried his best to imagine living in his little French village despite the unavoidable palm trees, homelessness and superficiality of Hollywood.
One of the greatest memories of monsieur Gabriel before he passed away was his love for the acoustic guitar. Every couple of days he would pour himself a glass of brandy and play his guitar in the courtyard of the enclave; singing famous tunes by Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. In just a couple of minutes, his presence attracted almost every tenant in the building. People would grab chairs, fill their cups with wine, smoke their cigarettes and listen to my grandfather as he happily entertained (and sometimes annoyed) his neighbors. It was right there and then when people really understood the life my grandfather wished he had lived all those years while living in that apartment. He imported the soul of France in a place and to a people who were foreign to that reality. It was days like those where he felt proud to be given the nickname monsieur!
As a kid growing up in America during the 1990’s, I never really made much of those evenings with music and wine. You could have commonly seen me inside hooked on some video game while staring at the television screen like a zombie for endless hours. Though the melancholic sounds of my grandfather’s guitar was unavoidable, it was difficult (at such a young age) to grasp or appreciate those moments. When my grandfather passed away in winter of 1999, there was an unquestionable void inside the enclave where he was admired and loved for all those years. As I grew older and entered adulthood, a genetic reincarnation took place which until this day comes as an eerie shock to all those who knew my grandfather well. Besides the incontestable resemblance in appearance, speech and physical tendencies, I began to embody much of my grandfather’s personality. In a strange way, I was learning more about him through my own actions as I did from actual memories of him.
The manager of the apartment complex, Christoph, was also a Frenchman who had moved to Los Angeles during the 70’s along with his family. He and my grandfather became close companions despite their age difference. After all, both were Frenchmen who enjoyed reminiscing the old country during long walks around the streets of East Hollywood; desperately wishing they were strolling somewhere inside the Latin Quarter of Paris. After my grandfather’s passing, Christoph would once in a while teach me a little French and German. He even taught me European history even back when I couldn’t even point out a single country on the map! One can only comprehend so much at such an adolescent age. Regardless, it’s evident my grandfather would have been proud to see me take such interests. I recall him bluntly stating “when people live in a culture and society so caught up in work and work-related stress, they commonly take apathy towards culture, politics, history and the arts. Never become like that.”
After graduating high school in 2006 and preparing to begin college, the time would come for me to say goodbye to Kingsley Drive; the multicultural enclave which was my second home for seventeen years. Coincidentally, it was also in college where I realized the profound impact all those years in the enclave had on something as basic as my speech. I became aware of people commonly noticing a strange accent when I spoke English. At first I thought it was just a random observation, but after a while it was becoming noticeable by many others as well.
“Your accent sounds really cool, where is it from?”
“Where were you born? I can’t make out what type of accent you have.”
Often times it came to a surprise to many when explained that I was in in fact born and raised right here in Los Angeles. At first I didn’t know how to accept this question and sometimes they didn’t know how to accept my answer. But after a while I accepted that there was a genuine and unique reason behind this mysterious accent. Just like how Italian-Americans from New York City speak with a distinct accent, so do a lot of Armenian-Americans like myself who grew up in Little Armenia.
Whether I liked it or not, my apparent accent was essentially a product of where I grew up and the people that surrounded me all those years within the enclave. In a certain sense I could say that I kind of enjoyed it. The environment in which I grew up in and the people who helped shape me gave me something unique and special that not too many people could say they possess. Due to a great level of exposure to various languages and accents throughout my life, I grew to become addicted to linguistics; just like my grandfather.
All the love that I have for history, languages, geography, literature and culture can all be attributed to life lessons learned inside that apartment building in East Hollywood. I’m proud to say that I had the chance to experience all that. During times of division and fear of immigrants, it’s important to understand the basic fabric of American society and history is intertwined with immigration. The importing and exporting of cultures is what has helped America thrive for more than two centuries. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for any other childhood.
Nowadays, East Hollywood is experiencing a fascinating transformation and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy it. The place where poet Charles Bukowski and actor Leonardo DiCaprio once called home is witnessing a fresh arrival of young and hip newcomers from around the globe. This gentrification has given the area a much needed face-lift (no pun intended). Whether it’s the opening of speakeasy bars, French bistros or classic record stores; for natives like myself, the streets of Little Armenia have never looked so exuberant and felt so vibrant. It safe to say that the melting pot is still well and alive and is here to stay…just with a couple of new flavors.
Much like how George Orwell had his Homage to Catalonia, I would like this to be my Homage to Little Armenia.