Top 10 Things I’ll Miss from Yerevan:
1. Public workouts – Parks here have slides and swings for kids, but you’ll find all generations gathered in the public gym section. A large sandbox hosts the moving workout machines – Grandma is doing the stair master in her 80s style skirt, Grandpa is twisting side to side standing on a small metal wheel, toddlers are covering their feet in sand, and teenagers are pumping the rowing machine. In a sizeable 50×50 foot pull-up bar section of the park, young men show off their Soviet gymnastic skills on static bars. These (really buff) men gather to compete for the best pull-up/flipping routines, set to the hippest baddest workout music in Eurasia.
2. Water fountains – Like the Romans, Armenia has an abundant supply of fresh water. Busy street corners offer streams of living water for the parched. Not only that, but Yerevan is famous for its fantastic fountain shows in Republic square every night of the week. There is mystical significance to running water – in Geghard monastery it is important to collect a portion of this healing stream in your plastic bottle, and compare its taste to that of the pleb watering stations in town. On a hot dry day, they taste the same.
3. Kids amusement parks – Bread and circuses abound for little children, and the fun is due to a refreshing and conspicuous lack of safety regulations. My kids have never had so much (cheap) fun in all their life. The inflatable castle is waiting for them every weekend, a 10 minute walk away. (Whoever said Yerevan is not family friendly lived in a suburb, and not in an apartment)
4. Stone and Wood detail – I want to buy all the wooden carved crosses (khachkars) that exist at the Vernissage flea market. Artists have a vast repertoire of medieval manuscript ornamentation to copy from (Yerevan has one of the best medieval book museums in the world), and it is in full display today. I can’t get over the beautiful stone work carved into the buildings downtown, and I feel like if I had 5 more years I would apprentice with a master.
5. Unique history – Hayastan (the real name of Armenia) has an inflated sense of national importance for a reason. They’ve maintained a unique culture through centuries of invasions – Assyrian, Mede, Seleucid, Roman, Hunnic, Mongol, Persian, Turkic, Russian. As I walk downtown, I imagine that I can see parts of these in people’s faces. They were part of every empire, but in the end stand alone. The Armenian language sounds Semitic, with a slow Persian lilt, especially on the open As (aah). Bits of French, Russian, Persian dot conversations. The Armenian apostolic church continues to be the glue that holds the diaspora together despite the acid of globalization.
6. Arts Scene – Live jazz, ballet, opera, symphony, rock bands, folk music, street performers, the puppet theatre, public dance lessons, fashion shows – Armenians love their arts. I got a kick out of seeing the Andean flute players surrounded by a throng of curious Armenian onlookers. We’ve been to all of the above in the last five months and enjoyed them all.
7. Local produce – “They are from the village” is a common and very true saying. Every day, an unhealthy looking Lada pulls up to our market and unloads its bounty from the backseat. It’s all fresh, and it’s all cheap, and it is everywhere. Armenians claim not to use chemicals (if this is true it’s because they can’t afford them). The key is to buy in season – a bag of six cucumbers set me back 25 cents today. Last week was strawberries, and this week is cherries and apricots. After driving through quite a few villages, I never saw a local that wasn’t working their plot of land by hand.
8. Friendliness – Everyone knows someone from another country, and you are always a potential connection. It’s not a put-on formality like in South America. People are genuinely nice and interested in getting to know you, especially if you have cute kids. Hospitality, like in most Middle Eastern countries, is legendary. Friendship is on public display all the time – men lock arms with other men, women hold each other’s hands. You start to get the feeling that this place is populated by Romeos, Benvolios, and Mercutios. Added to this everyday friendliness was the relatively small expat community. We’ll really miss hanging out at the British Ambassador’s house, talking politics with insiders, or visiting our Iraqi neighbors and discussing life with some thoughtful people.
9. Sense of Community – This is the theme running through this list. The curse of Soviet apartment blocks on a hot evening means everyone is out on the streets lapping up dirt cheap (but very good) ice cream, gathering at Republic square, just enjoying each others’ presence – and every age group is represented. Then when the weather is bearable, every square inch of the neighborhood is buzzing with life indoors. Think the smallness of Israel in a country where all demographics actually get along. People break out in patriotic songs and folk dances, and everyone knows the melodies of Gomidas – their most famous composer. The best parts of Yerevan are the beautiful downtown avenues, where everyone walks on Friday night, including the children and elderly. Despite its smallness, parts of Yerevan rival the atmosphere of Paris.
10. The View – Seeing Ararat’s twin peaks burst into view after a couple of hazy days never grows old. Everything is set against this gorgeous and seemingly eternal presence – sunsets, larks rushing against the updrafts of buildings, quickly forming clouds.
Top 7 Things I Won’t Miss
1. Uneven stairs – Every day when I get home from work I am reminded in a very awkward way of the thoughtless construction habits of some underpaid laborers. Couldn’t they have measured or used a mold? Water drips into our shower from a tube that disappears into our ceiling, and it drips faster at 11pm (does it start at the top of the building?) Someone in the apartment is inevitably doing renovations, which means constant concrete drilling that resonates throughout. One day, politely asking our downstairs neighbors why my toddler was consistently woken up from his nap, I found out that the racket was actually two floors down.
2. Hideous apartment blocks – I’m just starting to get desensitized to the inhuman imposition of Soviet pleb housing. I don’t notice them as much. But then when I think about it, Yerevan would have made a good set for Star Trek First Contact – home of the Borg cube. I suppose the sense of community is derived from density. But it has as much to do with empathy as it does with density. (I’m assured that most apartments, no matter how ugly on the outside, are quite well furnished inside).
3. Post-Soviet hospitals – We made a trip to a very poorly funded public hospital after Jane suffered a mini-concussion. Bare rooms, hardly any equipment. The doctor set Jane on a metal table with no sheet, told Rachel to hold her head, and went off into the other room to make the X-ray. No protective cover, no asking if Rachel was pregnant. Doctors in Armenia are not paid enough to survive, so they often ask for more money before doing a procedure. The school nurse carried a wad of cash with us just in case. One doctor on our hiking trip told us that many physicians have left the profession and have become successful businessmen. Only one particular hospital in the city, run by a famous Armenian American surgeon, has the equipment and procedures up to Canadian standards.
4. Armenian “lines” – Amusement park tickets, ice cream on a hot day, trying to get in a bus – they are all a fight to the death. I’ve never been so aggravated or dumbfounded at the logic, or illogic, of having to push your way to the front of a crowd. Last time I bought ice cream my competition were mothers with small children. This proved to be more difficult than I thought. A 10 year old boy cut in front of me 2 or 3 times. Each time I decided I would show him a lesson and keep my elbows protruded. At the last moment he slipped in front of me and bought his 3 cones when someone who had been successful pushed everyone back because she was trying to “leave” the line. Another time I had been waiting for 10 minutes at an amusement park concession. I was holding Alasdair and got tired. I put him down. The mother behind me rushed in front of me. Then a minute later, someone who hadn’t been standing in line at all nudged her way right to the front and bought her tickets because she seemed to be in more of a rush than everyone else. There is something quite disturbing about this transformation of friendliness to the chaotic state of nature. Our taxi driver once described getting lost in the Moscow airport as a boy. The only way he knew he was back in the right place was because there was no line – just a mass shoving its way forward. “Yeah, really…It’s a national tradition,” he said tongue in cheek.
5. Loud Music – What is up with trying to burst the eardrums of every child celebrating a birthday party? Our first party I remember Jane crying, Alasdair running away, and me, cowering in the kitchen (near the wine). The volume was unbearable. Then came Alasdair’s end of the year concert at pre-school. The first act consisted of the kids entering the room to an ear shattering techno beat. All the subsequent songs (which were well choreographed) were off the decibel charts. “So this is what you’ve been practicing for the last 3 weeks,” I thought to myself. It wouldn’t have mattered it I said it out loud.
6. Unpredictable Shopping – Just because you see something in the grocery store doesn’t mean it will be there tomorrow. Because Armenian borders are closed with Turkey and Azerbaijan, there is limited supply of popular items. I once went on an errand for Rachel and I couldn’t find 5 out of the 10 items I was looking for – things that had been around for a couple months until then. You just have to prepare to improvise.
7. Corruption/Depression – I mostly mean the economy. The government is hiking electricity prices 18 percent in August due to the faltering ruble. One of our friends was arrested in the sit-in protest today. People are fed up with arbitrary rules, corruption, lack of jobs, lack of development, opaque laws, byzantine bureaucracy, and lack of real democracy. There is a negative feed-back loop of resignation among the young people. As I mentioned before, even doctors are quitting their profession. The air is a bit tense whenever our taxi driver suggests getting something for a cheaper price. Those who get ahead do so in mysterious ways. People who I highly respected defended the connections game – “how else would anything get done?” and “every country has corruption.” I will never forget one of my students asking me indignantly “wouldn’t you pay to get out of jail if you knew you could?” Never mind the nature of the charges. This indifference to justice is hard to understand. I am also looking forward to police that don’t stop people to top up their salary.
Evidence that there is hope among the youth.
We’ll miss you Yerevan!