Archive for the ‘life in general’ Category


Yerevan: with a few exceptions, the most family friendly city I’ve been to.

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.

Claiming a bench in Republic square before the fountain show begins

Claiming a bench in Republic square before the fountain show begins

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)

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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.

Playing "palace" in the palace.

Playing “palace” in the palace.

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.


hasmik music

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.


Musician friend Serge talks philosophy

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Ashot Hovhanisian – best taxi driver in Yerevan

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.

protests 2

We’ll miss you Yerevan!














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I’ve come to the end of my third year teaching, and it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of teaching middle school in Yerevan (February-June).

The Good

1. Setting high academic expectations.

Middle schoolers are just at the point where you can start teaching against the textbook. I really enjoyed reading and discussing Plato’s Apology with my 12 year old class – many were asking all the right questions. Small group discussion is one of my favorite ways of teaching, and small classes at QSI really lends itself to this way of teaching.

Both 12 and 13 year olds also wrote an 8 page research paper. A couple students learned the hard way about plagiarism, but others said they took off reading and writing about topics of their interest. I was proud of some of the areas my students tackled: comparing Machiavelli’s The Prince to his Discourses on Livycomparing Greek art as mimesis and the use of fractals in computer graphics, comparing strategies of the Roman Empire to those of the US, and whether Ebola caused the Black Death (apparently yes, say some scientists).

We used a lot of technology – Edmodo continues to be useful, and I discovered Socrative, a free app that gives immediate feedback on quizzes and exit slips.

2. Having fun

I love teaching history. We enjoyed dressing up for our Greek god party on Mt. Olympus. Later we were served by slaves at our Roman patrician banquet, complete with proper reclining seating arrangement on mats. We also built scale models of the Pantheon, and Hagia Sofia (OK – the last one was a little hard to do!)

Any time you can do a field trip to a Mithraic temple (Garni), a medieval monastery (Geghard), and hike into a canyon is a win win.

We capped off our year by doing some archaeology – students were assigned one civilization from the text book and produced 3 artifacts for burial. Inscriptions were written on pottery, and then smashed with a hammer. After burial, groups then had to dig up other people’s artifacts and try to figure out which civilization they were from.

Debates were a great way to explore topics in non-fiction and get to the core ideas of texts. Students usually begged for more, because they think they aren’t actually working.

8 different classes a day is ridiculous for a 12 year old (for a fun critique of school’s hidden curriculm, read John T. Gatto‘s Weapons of Mass Instruction). Sometimes they just need to go outside and play soccer (and realize that their teacher is not bad).

3. Character education.

7th grade can be a social minefield for students. It was a privilege to be part of the conversation when the going got tough. I love that QSI rewards students for excellence in character, evaluates areas of improvement, and makes them part of the report card. You end up reflecting a lot more as a class about virtuous actions (however, I felt like my experiment with daily reflections morning and afternoon – the Stoic method – was a failure, since you can’t force someone to go through therapy, the have to want it).

Teaching about the Armenian genocide was a particularly rewarding experience. I have a blog post about it here.


The Tough

1. Way too much computer time.

When I arrived to Yerevan in February, many students in the 12 and 13 year old class did not even have binders – they just took notes on computers like a university class and handed assignments in on Google drive or in unformatted emails. Because I used Edmodo and Socrative, it was a constant challenge to change their habits, and I believe I failed at this – doing an 8pg paper to cover multiple units also didn’t help. I felt like I betrayed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Your Brain. Students need less screen-time, not more. I believe principals who think they are doing their elementary a favor by getting I Pads are sadly mistaken.

2. Brain drain.

After picking up and moving to Yerevan from Winnipeg (in the space of a month) and teaching middle school for the first time, I spent way too much time researching for my courses, and not enough time planning the actual objectives. Perhaps reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome (abridged of course) was an unnecessary burden that prevented timely assessment and contributed to burn out. There are other ways to engage the classroom without having all the good stories.

I also spent too much time blogging, which is way more work than it looks like. In the last 3 years I’ve written a 200 page book worth of material.

I drank way too much coffee, which made me into a (sweaty) walking zombie by the end of the week. Everyone reacts slightly differently to the substance, and I’ve realized that by Friday too many cups of coffee makes me slightly depressed. I remember a speech to our graduating class in Winnipeg telling us to “STAY AWAY FROM COFFEE.”  (Christine Rhodes) Now I know why.

3. Sweating the details

Switching from a large public school to a private school with classes of 10 or less has a way of making you more relaxed. But that doesn’t mean you should let go of the reins too much. Just because students aren’t really that loud and people are generally doing what they’re told isn’t good enough.

Treating my 12 year olds like they were more mature than they really were set me up for problems, especially with entitled students. I tried to live by the William Glasser approach (godfather of the QSI way), but there was something missing, and that was discipline and habit. Sometimes no amount of reflection on behavior will influence future actions unless students are explicitly told that they are wrong, and forced to make a habit of acting correctly.

The biggest thing I learned this year was to be prepared with a variety of immediate and incremental consequences and NOT to give warnings. Giving warnings is a recipe to be inconsistent, since you have to remember all the warnings you’ve given. Better to keep the learning curve and expectations high, and treat poor behavior like a bad habit.

The End

Over all, this adventure in Yerevan was challenging but really rewarding. I met some great educators, had some once in a lifetime experiences, and have lots of foibles to learn from moving forward. Many people said I had “the most challenging classes in the school.” Well, I’m both relieved and disappointed to hear that – relieved to know that I survived with a tough class, disappointed to hear that I wasn’t as effective as hoped in molding habits and behavior. Perhaps this is the best way to begin work for an organization like QSI that values character education.


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Yes, Armenia is part of Europe. I just saw Ronaldo get a hat trick, and I lost my voice cheering for a really decent team. HOO HOO HAYASTAN!!


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ararat - suren manvelyan

A couple of weeks ago I asked why Muslim groups in the US supported Turkey in genocide denial. One theory was that Muslims saw themselves as incapable of committing genocide.

Erdogan, it turns out, said just this in defence of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir in 2009.

But a better reason for supporting genocide denial is one based in Islamic law. At the turn of the century, Armenians were protesting unfair taxation and treatment by an Islamic government. Declaring themselves equal to Muslims was dangerous to the umma, and the secular Young Turks therefore had strong support among their subjects when they declared all Armenians a threat to society.

20th century Turkey was built on the Ottoman remnants of unfair tax laws and building restrictions. Similar policies continue today.  The Islamist practice of denying building permits for new churches – the same policy across the Islamic world in countries such as Egypt – is alive and well in Turkey, and continues to form the basis for discrimination against its Armenian minority. The Greek Orthodox church in Turkey, still the ‘primus inter pares‘ authority, is still not able to rebuild the the 70 or so churches that were destroyed in 1955.

The continued discriminatory legal code is one clue to why Ottoman, Young Turk, Nationalist, and Islamist narratives all agree that Armenians were a legitimate threat in 1915.

The Byzantine military historian Edward Luttwak recently reviewed Ronald Grigor Suny’s book, ‘They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide‘ (Suny is a historian from the University of Michigan, and formerly U. Chicago, and Luttwak apparently “raises cattle in the Amazon”).

There were a couple details that caught my eye – ones that don’t usually make it into news reports:

1) Erdogan freely uses the word genocide in criticism of nations that persecute Muslim minorities (Chinese + Uighus, Israel + Palestine)

2) Jewish, Orthodox, and Armenian minorities continued to pay discriminatory taxes in the 20th century – in the 40s and 50s, sometimes more than 200% higher than Muslim counterparts. These were the same policies that Armenians were protesting in 1896. Pogroms destroyed some 73 Orthodox churches in 1955, none of which are allowed to be rebuilt today.

3) The initial pluralism of the Young Turks (Ben Gurion was among the future leaders, and studied in Istanbul) was rejected partly because of fear that Muslims would be eclipsed by the patriotism of non-Muslim talent. A secular Turkey would have also given Armenians an advantage in the business world.

4) Decades after Edward Said’s Orientalism, Islamists continue to deflect criticism by pointing out colonial hypocrisy.

Davutoğlu called the (EU) resolution (to recognize the Armenian Genocide) ‘a reflection of Europe’s racism … where are those aboriginal people? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the tribes of Africa? How were they wiped out from history?’

This is all very true, but it simply panders to the much expanded (and appropriate) Western guilt based on Natural Law, where Erdogan shows none because Muslims are apparently incapable of evil.

In Canada, we are just now coming to terms with the “cultural genocide” of Aboriginal peoples – especially the government program of taking children away from their families to “kill the Indian in the child.” This really was an attempt to wipe out a distinct heritage, and it was partly based on religious motives.

One of the prerequisites for the Truth and Reconciliation process was an increased secularism.  In other words, religious pride (sometimes indistinguishable from nationalist pride) kept Canadians from acknowledging the evil done to their neighbors for 100 years. This religious pride was a product not only of sermons, but a long tradition of legal discrimination against Aboriginals.

Despite their calls of hypocrisy, it is precisely the secular natural law view of human rights that Islamist groups refuse to acknowledge – Islamic law, as far as I know, admits of no natural law readings of justice.

It is from this brotherhood of religious pride that American Muslim groups declare solidarity with Turkish policy. And it is not just an interpretation of history that American Muslims support, but a legal code – one that led to the events they deny.

As of last week, Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is no longer in majority. In an interview with Foreign Policy, one party official blamed you know who: “There’s an economic lobby in the world, which is under the hand of the Jewish lobby, and these are the ones who want the AKP to fall. Not only the Jewish lobby, there is another movement – the Crusaders. Because the AKP government is the voice of the Muslims in Turkey, and all the world.”

The idea that Turkey would be the voice of the umma was perhaps a policy objective of the AKP. Whether they could ever achieve this, one thing remains constant – the continued discrimination toward minorities in Turkey based on religion that has been handed down through the Ottoman legal code.

By signing on to Armenian genocide denial rather than call for legal reforms, American Muslims are hinting that Islamic Law can never be superceded by Natural Law. It will be interesting to see whether their view changes if a secular democratic process in Turkey leads to the acknowledgement of past evil.

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khor virap One look at a cloudless Ararat confirmed our itinerary today: we were off to the spiritual birthplace of modern Armenia, the ancient city of Artashes founded in 180 BC, now known as the monastery of Khor Virap. Legend has it that Hannibal himself founded this city while fleeing his Roman conquerers.

khor virap - hayk margaryan

photo: Hayk Margaryan

Situated right on the border with Turkey in pristine apricot growing territory, Khor Virap was the site where Armenia’s patron saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for 13 years in a cellar. After healing Tiridates III, the pagan king converted to Christianity and became the first to declare it a national faith in 301. To get there, we drove 45 min south of Yerevan past various Russian military outposts (why wouldn’t Armenians defend their own border?) and defunct factory towns built by the Soviets.  The complex seen today was re-built, like many ancient sites, after massive earthquake in the 17th century. DSCF3177 DSCF3174   DSCF3175 At night, you can see the lights of American “listening posts” on the slopes of Ararat. In the daytime, the nearby Turkish minarets remind you of the cultural divide. DSCF3149 (2)   DSCF3124 (2)   DSCF3122 Alasdair gets involved in some repair work. He’s fascinated that grown men also like digging in the dirt. DSCF3123 (2) One man gets creative with his moustache for a bit of extra photo income with tourists: DSCF3126 DSCF3147 (2) DSCF3146 (2) The sanctuary doorway is just as intricately carved as one of the many khachkars. Almost every church we’ve set foot in has a dome that is supported by pendentives, a technique first invented my Justinian’s architects in the Hagia Sophia. Armenia Christians traditionally baptize their children after 40 days, and is the first time the extended family sees them. There were two baptisms in the couple hours that we visited Khor Virap. Even recently built churches in Armenia have intricately carved stonework you would expect from medieval craftsmen. Jane and Alasdair enter the chapel and cellar where St. Gregory was imprisoned. A ladder with 40 rungs leads to the bottom of the cellar, where a large picture of Gregory and his trials fills the small space with its bright colours. Next to the chapel, our taxi driver Ashot shows us the monastery bread oven, where lavash flat bread is slapped against the walls. DSCF3138 DSCF3113 DSCF3112 DSCF3140 (2) DSCF3107 (2) Jane was expecting to “climb the mountain”. I can’t say this pilgrimage was very contemplative. DSCF3108 DSCF3160 (2) DSCF3094 DSCF3098 DSCF3099 (2) DSCF3100 (2) Ashot helps us out with the kids. Another way to make money off unsuspecting tourists is to hand their kids doves and charge them for “letting them go”. DSCF3163 Alasdair holds a pigeon:

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On my reading list is award winning travel writer Philip Marsden:

the crossing place

 I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an ‘Ararat’ sense: the sense of attraction to a mountain.

Osip Mandelstam

There’s only one people in the world who feel like they belong to a mountain: the Armenians.

Arto Tunçboyajyan

On our way to a school ski-trip at Tsakhkadzor, 40 minutes away from Yerevan (picture New Zealand, only more rocks, or as I imagined, an inside out “mines of Moria” from Lord of the Rings), Arpi, a Syrian Armenian co-worker from Aleppo, noted the difference between Arab and Armenian pessimism:

Inshallah, or God Willing, is what Arabs say for yes or maybe, it is their way of half-committing to everything. If you ask someone to do something or be somewhere, you usually get inshallah, which drives you crazy, because if they don’t show up, they just say it wasn’t God’s will, or they didn’t really mean it.”

However, in Armenia, there is a different sort of pessimism, almost as if the farther East you go the more determinist you get. Che means no, and you can hear this word in almost every single sentence spoken. They use che instead of yeah, or OK, or see? leading to an insufferable joltiness, almost as if you’re driving a 4×4 Lada over the inverted Mines of Moria on the way to Tsakhkadzor. Our taxi driver Ashot has carried the habit into his English: “You see over here? No. This is a good store to buy bread. No. It’s wery much the cheaper than Kaiser.”The NOs are always very emphatic.

Their famous saying which incorporates che (and I forget the direct words now…) can be transliterated as “there is no way”, or “probably not”. “This is how the Armenians respond to any potential future plan – probably not, and we always laugh at them for saying this,” says Arpi, who moved away from Aleppo two years ago.

Another favourite past-time for Armenians is watching others from a distance – when we arrived at Zvartnots Airport, there were at least 6 or 7 men sitting in the baggage claim area as I tried to rent a cart. We had 8 large bags, and were the only ones left in the terminal after the 5am arrival. As I walked around trying to fit all the bags and keep them from falling, the group of young men sat and watched in amusement.

“One time I spent about five minutes trying to park in a tight spot while a man watched me, smoking on the sidewalk,” says Arpi. “After finally getting into the parking spot, the man came up to me and said you can’t park there, it’s illegal.”

In a country with 40 per cent unemployment, it seems natural for the locals to have a bit of schadenfreude, or pleasure at another person’s misfortune – a type of emotional detachment that has grown out of Soviet era distrust.

I can see how natural pessimism could be one cause of the eventual claustrophobia some people feel in a city like Yerevan. Perhaps this habit of saying Che is part of the sense of melancholy that defines country. Ararat, a mountain out of reach of Armenian citizens, is the national symbol, to the extent that people usually have a picture of the twin peaks somewhere on a wall in their house. Like the Israelis with their own diaspora, Armenians share a conviction of a lost and idealized history.

I’ve been watching various documentaries on Armenia on Youtube. A quick survey reveals the contested nature of its boundaries – amateur historians point at maps proving Armenia’s existence before Azerbaijan, and re-mixes of genocide documentaries are posted in various forms. This one is accompanied by a suitably negative track from “System of a Down,” an Armenian grunge band from LA:

This one tries to dispel the “myth” of an Azeri homeland:

Here’s a not so subtle exploration of Armenian sites in Turkey:

Archaeology is one way to recover a sense of pride and nationalism. Tigranakert, the city of Tigran I, the greatest Armenian king who was defeated by Pompey, is in Azeri controlled territory:

Russia is one of the first countries to recognize the Armenian genocide:

Here is Putin quoting Peter the Great – “You have to pet the Armenians” and make them feel comfortable so that they migrate in greater numbers. Outside of Los Angeles, Moscow is probably the largest diaspora community:

How the Russians divide and conquer the Azeris and Armenians:

A history of Yerevan, the city (which betrays its American influence by quoting Abraham Lincoln):

If you’re looking for straight up tourist survey of major sites in Armenia here’s an hour long doc:

CNN has a look at a modern life in Armenia, including the arts, the importance of chess education, and the birthright program:

Here’s a bit of our taxi ride over the Kievyan bridge toward downtown, which gives you a flavour Armenian techno music:

A Neolithic Stonehenge in southern Armenia that is 4,000 years older than the one in southern UK:

A tribute to home brew mulberry vodka in Armenia:

And finally, where we went skiing this week (I realized when I got to the top of the mountain that the last time I skied was in Manitoba 15 years ago):

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Here is my current routine in Yerevan:

6 am –  harsh neon of my alarm clock stares me in the face. I turn it away to shine on the wall. Warmth of a nearby Gazprom fuelled heater makes the walk across faux hardwood to the shower very comfortable. The whirr of a water pump is activated every time you turn on the water – nice hot water, bolshoe spasibo Gazprom (which now owns 100% of natural gas in Armenia as a “strategic cooperation”).

6:30 – My strategic cooperation continues, this time with some Armenian coffee – finely ground beans in boiling water, and unwashed eggs cooked in unpasteurized New-Zealand imported butter, maybe with some incredibly salty cheese. All dairy products from Armenia have a slight “goat” flavour to them. I grab a piece of mouth watering brandy flavoured sausage.

7:00 – the US assistant secretary of state is visiting, the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region with Azerbaijan is heating up, and drama between the ruling Republican Party president and the opposition is waning. Armenia is gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the genocide April 24th, and  Turkish President Erdogan says he is willing to acknowledge facts put forward by an impartial panel of historian, and schedules a remembrance of Gallipoli for the same day.

7:30 – Jane and I put on light jackets, and triple unlock the heavy front door of our apartment. Jane presses floor “0” in the elevator – the ground floor. Ashot, our taxi driver is waiting in front of the grocery store.   “Vonces Jane?” he asks “Good” she says. “Lav Em,” I say. On the ten minute ride to school, we discuss how there is no snow this year, the economic situation in Armenia, and some travel options for the long weekend. He recommends raspberry tea to get rid of my cold. We discover that a decent “middle class” salary in Yerevan is 300 to 400 American dollars. I am paying him half of this every month.(“This jobs in Arrmenia is nothing doing”)Our ride takes us past some of the most imposing “borg” like clusters of Soviet apartment blocks. About eight or nine 15 story buildings rise from the rock strewn landscape – they are so tightly packed that no light comes through, making them look like one massive alien imposition. The taxi slows down for the traffic cameras on the highway.  At our turn-off on one side of the highway (north to Georgia) is a gaudy classical “greek” style house, complete with statues of hoplites, built by the guy who owns a monopoly on all construction materials in Armenia.

You would think the guy who has a monopoly on all construction materials would have a little more taste.

You would think the guy who has a monopoly on all construction materials would have a little more taste.

On the other side is the “American style” community of Vahakni – a gated community of huge houses with the token lawn (finally exposed as the wasteful and frivolous expanses they are) We drive down a pot-hole ridden back road to the school. Last year the owner of the front “road” to the school blocked it and asked $100,000 ransom. The slow winding path and white mini-vans reminds me of school in Colombia.

Vahakni - a couple square miles of Illinois prairie - strangely transplanted in the Caucasus. (Ararat in the background)

Vahakni – a couple square miles of Illinois prairie – strangely transplanted in the Caucasus. (Ararat in the background)

8:00 – I greet my Iranian co-worker at the main doors. On a clear day, the double peaks of Ararat loom in the distance. Aragatz and other snow-capped ranges surround us. Jane is off to school smiling and doesn’t look back. Today she is going on a field trip downtown and using the metro to go to a fire station. I go to the staffroom and try to figure out a hot water dispenser with Russian writing on the buttons. In the hallway I chat with the director about his 30 years experience in international schools. I write an email about an upcoming school ski trip.

9:13 – Desks in a rectangle shape, I have my 12 year old class re-enact the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. They’ve been assigned Ancient Greek characters from Plutarch’s Lives and they will have to discuss the Persian and Peloponnesian wars from their perspective.

10:00 – On break, I walk down the 100ft. high school hallway and greet the Spanish, Russian, and Armenian language teachers. The Russian class made a doll they will burn to bring on the Spring season (like “old man” filled with fireworks in Latin America). One of the math teachers has a PhD and works as a researcher at the university in the evenings. Loud yelling by the Cuban-American ensures everyone gets to class on time. The British and Canadian teachers say “excuse me?”

11:08 – In Literature (13yr old), we discuss superstitions in literature class and stage some “tableaux” scenes. I wonder whether To Kill a Mockingbird with strike a chord with the eight students in my 13 year old class. The cross-cultural discussions are always stimulating, as I learn just as much from them.

11:57 – My Armenian students are chatting about the worst of Eurovision, and playing “Rabiz” music for me on their laptops. I try to discuss prejudice toward Turkish and Azeris. I discover that one of them read Pride and Prejudice for fun last year.

12:30 – Ashot takes Jane home with Rachel and Alasdair. The police have visited Rachel and fortunately not asked for copies of our passports.

12:45 – I eat lunch with Armenian colleagues. One is a refugee from Syria. She has been here for 2 years. “The rebels started kidnapping Armenian kids to support their war against Asad” she says. When I ask her how her relatives survive, she says “by stealing”. She explains that she would like to go back, but that the religious tensions have been raised due the war, and Christians are no longer seen as equals.

1:20 – Religion in Rome and the rise of Christianity. I’m fascinated by the discussion about Jesus’ teachings – only of my students is familiar with them. None of them agree with loving your enemy – especially not the Azeris or Turks.

2:15 – read Greek Myths.

3:00 – I’m impressed by this 12 year old class. However, most of them are embassy kids and will be leaving after their 2 or 3 year terms. We plan persuasive speeches based on characters from Plutarch’s lives.

3:45 – school’s out. I mark assignments and then read some news from Canada.

4:00 – Ashot picks me up. He knows people in the army but is reluctant to talk about Nagorno-Karabakh. I stop by the supermarket and change some US dollars into Drams. The local fruit-seller rips me off, but I don’t argue with him. I pick up 25 cent bread and then take a look at the selection of Armenian brandy – Winston Churchill’s favourite.





4:30 – My kids jump all over me, play hide-and seek, and then we have a wonderful supper from Rachel – rice and baked chicken, and a lovely pudding made of chocolate imported by Rachel (with a slight tinge of goat in the milk). We Skype with family and friends from Canada. I read the kids stories.


7:30 – Kids are in bed. Rachel is watching a hilarious episode of “Outnumbered”. I check out some possible destinations for the long weekend next week.

Geghard, or "spear" monastery, founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century.

Geghard, or “spear” monastery, founded by Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century.

geghard portal



Garni Temple, down the road from Geghard Monastery.

I’m trying to slog my way through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is more enjoyable than I expected (and is technically part of my planning, which is what I love about teaching history).

Various forms of eastern techno music interrupted by dogs barking outside. Time to walk back across the hardwood floors to my Gazprom heated room.

10:00pm – right now it is 12 noon Winnipeg.

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