Posts Tagged ‘Yerevan’

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

Top 10 Things I’ll Miss from Yerevan:

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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Evidence that there is hope among the youth.

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We’ll miss you Yerevan!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Paree Looys Armenia

View from our window.

Ararat on a hazy day.

Karen Dimirtchian complex in the distance.

Karen Dimirtchian complex in the distance.

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.

Kievyan Bridge with Karen Dimirtchian stadium in the background

Kievyan Bridge with Karen Dimirtchian stadium in the background

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.

Classic faux leather outfits

Classic faux leather outfits

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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.

Trees are pruned every 5 years

Trees are pruned every 5 years

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).

Old timers unite in the park

Old timers unite in the park

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.

A back lane near our place

A back lane near our place

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.

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A man staffs a taxi dispatch office

A man staffs a taxi dispatch office

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.

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