By Nareg Balian '18
It was a busy, bustling day in the Cascade, a communal square in the heart of ancient Yerevan, Armenia. Accessed by steep stairs, the Cascade was full of vendors, tourists, and students dashing to their destinations. I had just attended a lecture at the Musical Armenia Program and was heading to my piano lesson for the day.
At that moment, I decided it was about time to trip down those steep stairs. My sheet music flew everywhere, and a cart vendor rushed to help me gather my music saying, “Ari, ari! Tsavt tanem.” Embarrassed, I thanked him and soldiered on to my lesson, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he had said what translated to “here, here, let me take your pain.” After three weeks of intensive music, history, and culture lessons, I thought I was in tune with the idiosyncrasies of the Armenian language. However, I found the phrase tsavt tanem—and I kept hearing it—perplexing.
My confusion accompanied me into my lesson where I asked my no-nonsense piano teacher what it meant. She confirmed my initial thoughts, declaring, “Tsavt tanem? It means—how you say in English?—‘let me take your pain.’ Now, please continue with Babajanyan.”
I wasn’t satisfied; there was more to this peculiar phrase; I needed to grasp its deeper meaning—its essence. So I turned to the foremost expert on the Armenian language I knew.
And I asked my grandma, Nami.
Since Nami was a teacher for over thirty years, she took this simple question as an opportunity to launch into a twenty-minute Armenian grammar lecture. Here is the shortened version: Ցավդ տանեմ or tsavt tanem is an Armenian phrase that literally means: “let me take your pain.” Ցավ or tsav means pain, and the -դ or -t is the second person singular. Տանեմ or tanem comes from the infinitive verb տանել or tanel, which means, “to take.” The -եմ or -em ending signifies the first person; hence, “let me take.” Finished with deconstructing the phrase, Nami then defined three different meanings for tsavt tanem: sympathizing with someone’s plight, poking gentle fun at someone’s shortcomings, or conveying endearment. That summer, I experienced all three.
After my sheet music debacle in the Cascades, my second encounter with the phrase was when my father, who had accompanied me on my trip to Armenia, suggested we grab an ice cream cone. My father received a call from his friend just as we were about to walk into the ice cream shop, so I went in myself. Haggling in Armenian is not my strongest skill, so I ended up paying what amounted to five dollars for one scoop of vanilla ice cream. My father sauntered in and proceeded to order a chocolate-covered cone with three scoops of fudge orange chip swirl and paid one dollar. Needless to say, my father happily flaunted his superior negotiating skills by waving his change from the transaction and declaring, “Nareg, tsavt tanem, you were just ripped off.” Gee, thanks.
My adventures with tsavt tanem continued when I finished my time at the Musical Armenia Program by performing the pieces that I had learned. All of my family’s friends and their extended families and their neighbors and their friends and their second cousins came to witness this historic event. I had not even finished bowing when my “Aunt” (a formidable woman) came rushing up the aisle towards the stage. Before you could say tsavt tanem, she was upon me in a whirlwind, pinching my cheeks, declaring I had grown up so much, throwing tsavt tanem this way and that. Bellowing over her shoulder to my father, “Sevag, tsavt tanem, tell your wife Nairi that your son is a piano genius,” she turned back to me. “ Tsavt tanem, you’ve grown up! Tsavt tanem, are you hungry? I have made dinner! Tsavt tanem, you must eat!” I inched my way to the door, thinking: if I don't get out soon, she’s really going to have to take my pain.
Last summer I traveled to Armenia to study, discover, and connect to my ancestral homeland. What I hadn’t expected was for Armenia to envelop me completely. When my music flew across the Cascades, someone I did not know jumped to my aid, telling me that he would take my pain. My father, in what was one of many moments of levity, made sure that we laughed off any pain from tourist-trapping ice cream vendors. My “Aunt,” who had seen me only once before, showed me so much warmth and affection—I needed her to take my pain. Every tsavt tanem experience brought me closer to my heritage. Embodying the generosity, the good spirit, and the love in Armenia, tsavt tanem is both untranslatable and universal.