Good morning Armenia.
Out our kitchen window the twin mountains of Ararat are crisp and clear after a gentle evening rain. Almost every direction you look, the skyline is framed by a snow capped mountain range.
Here are some reflections on our first week in Yerevan:
Like most developing nations, Yerevan is a mixture of bright eyed cosmopolitanism surrounded by the masses of generally good natured people silently eking out a living in the dusty jungles of soviet-style apartment blocks. We live in the north east corner of the city, a steep climb from the gorge of Hrazdan river which is crossed by the equally steep arches of the Kievyan bridge, built by German prisoners of war in 1950.
The City: After Armenian pizza last night on Tumanyan St. – a thin roasted pita with meat and parsley – we walk past the family ice-skating park down the pedestrian boulevard from the Opera House to Republic square. It could have been Paris or Prague except the busker plays “duduk” style music on a clarinet. The difference between the Caucasus and Europe are the distinctively Romanesque arches and ubiquitous tufa stone buildings. Tufa is a red tinged volcanic rock (reminiscent of Rome), and the cause of all the dust….hence the never ending sea of Armenians in black clothing.
Yes, everyone here really does wear black all the time. Bright colours are rare, which adds to the general atmosphere of solidarity and gentle apprehension about the past and the future. I wore brown khakis last night, and my two year old’s shoes stained my legs in no time. We are unmistakeable foreigners. Cars defer to pedestrians on crosswalks, but still joust for position in the fluid traffic. Young people of the same sex held arms and in Middle Eastern friendship custom, sharp Persian features contrast with stocky male figures – in black leather – who seem to have enjoyed the excellent Ararat beer, brandy, and the whole aisles in the local grocery stores dedicated to vodka. Stores catering to the super-rich are a short walk away from Pizza Hut and KFC and Starbuck imitators.
The generally conservative culture is highly family oriented. As Jane and Alasdair ran into each other and fell to the stone ground, two young men eagerly ran over to help them up like off-duty guardians. This is a good metaphor and representation of Armenian friendliness.
“Yerevan is older than the Roman Empire,” reminds our driver. The presidential palace, parliament, opera hall, and Moscow movie theatre are each worthy of a great city. Throughout its epic history, Armenia has changed capitals 11 times. A banner of the poet musician Komitas hangs among the Republican Square buildings – he has the face of a stern medieval monk with piercing eyes. Down the street this inner turmoil is expressed outwardly large posters in the boulevard – photographs of affected poets smoking, yearning, and thinking dangerous philosophic thoughts.
We drive past the world famous Ararat brandy company and back up the Hrazdan gorge, the rock face naturally cut with large quartz like formations. A group of men work out in a public gymnasium on the side of the road. All that protects us from the Hrazdan is a handmade rock wall.
Back at our apartment, we gaze down from the Ararat mountains to the Kievyan bridge. The city line is dominated by the other-worldly Karen Demirtchian stadium, rising from the city like an alien temple, each of its porticos shaped like a Spanish colonial helmet. The Persian inspired arches are weighed down and pushed outward. Behind it lies the Armenian holocaust memorial.
A walk down our street takes you to Buenos Aires park. A policeman wearing an Ushanka russian style hat guides us across the busy traffic, along with men wearing black, and women in layers of makeup. In the park, I peer in a small building with hazy windows – men from another older generation all wear black caps and jackets, smoking and playing backgammon and chess (Chess is still a required sport in school).
Last night we received a gentle reminder of Armenia’s Soviet history. Answering a knock on our door, I speak to a man who is uneasy and grinning politely. He claims to be our apartment “caretaker” – the police have apparently requested copies of our passports, he explains. Also, he requires that we pay more for the apartment because we have two children living with us. Doesn’t he know that we are replacing a family of the same size? None of this sounds kosher. My guess is that the main floor grocer has informed the “caretaker” that we are gullible newcomers.
My first impression of Yerevan was that the skeleton-like apartment blocks live amongst the ancient rubble of a noble civilization. Thirty years ago, the city administration scrambled to fulfill a Soviet style population quota (for the sake of building a metro – currently still under construction) by importing provincials to hastily built apartment complexes. Now these precarious islands, connected by clotheslines, sit on the man-made fault line of crumbling foundations.
The ubiquitous and formless rock contributes to the sense of being lost in time, like the fragments of countless wayward meteorites that have congregated in this one place. Along the highway on the outskirts of the city you would mistake the entire portions of the landscape for rubble because of the broken rock in the fields, the ditches, everywhere. A pile of large rocks sits inside the rusting metal gates at the end of a parking lot. Is it rubble? In the process of being cleared for some new construction? Is this the way the landscape naturally exists? One does not know. The addition of concrete serves to fragment the landscape even further with a faceless monolithic stare. These post-soviet concrete blocs are places of living – functional, but dilapidated beyond repair. And so they return back to the rubble on the surface of the earth. Our apartment block is one of the new ones, only four years old, but it manages to look twenty.
The School: Briefly, I teach 7th and 8th grade history (Greece and Rome) and Literature at QSI, which is an organization affiliated with US embassies in 35 different countries. A third of my students are of the “patrician” class of Armenia, and the rest are embassy kids from around the world. Two thirds of my co-workers are Armenian. The high school is one small hallway – I share a projector with the high school Lit teacher, who until December was the British ambassador. The kids are bright and hardworking (compared to public school) and there are 18 in total. The days are long – school starts at 8:20 and ends 3:45. I have to prep 6 different classes a day. At times, you live by the Russian saying: “they pretend to work, and we pretend to pay them.” But it’s been a very good first week, and Jane seems to be enjoying pre-school quite a bit. It took about 6 days to get over jet lag. More soon.