Why did I laugh when I felt sad?

Liana Ayvazyan poses in front of a living sculpture in a Yerevan park; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

We were having a very pleasant evening in Yerevan, Armenia, with our hostess Liana Ayvazyan. Susanna and I enjoyed looking at all of the large beautiful sculptures in the downtown area, including sculptures by Rodin and Botero. As we walked along, Liana told us about the children’s gallery, the children’s library, and the children’s puppet theater. She proudly showed us the Opera House, around which young people flew by on rollerblades and older people rested on newly installed park benches. Of course, we were impressed by all of the parks and cafes. So many people were walking about on this comfortably warm Thursday evening. Even as we headed home at midnight, the streets of Yerevan were full.

So why was I sad? Because I had asked Liana what she remembered about Columbia, a city of 400,000 people in South Carolina. As a Muskie Fellow, Liana was able to spend 3 months at USC (University of South Carolina) in 1998. I was the official host for all international visitors to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, so I helped Liana get settled into an apartment and into life on campus. Liana spent most of her time collecting research materials and reading in Thomas Cooper Library, but she also made a visit to Washington, DC to interview officials and visit friends. When Liana learned that Susanna and I would be in Yerevan, she volunteered to show us around the current capitol of Armenia. So what did Liana remember about Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina? Depression because Columbia’s streets were (and remain) empty of people at night. Compared to Yerevan, there are few cafes. And the windows in her apartment didn’t open, so she lacked fresh air. I think Liana would have been happier in Greenville, where the streets are alive at night. Overall, Liana had a very positive experience, but the lack of people on the streets and the lack of fresh air inside her apartment were depressing.

So why did I laugh? I don’t know. Embarrassment, perhaps?