Yerevan is a great place to hang out and write, which is what I came to do (mainly). I have a nice apartment that overlooks a park that is full of public art and lined with cafes. I love to go out walking through the city and, although Yerevan does not have world class tourist sites, there is always plenty to see. The weather at this time of year is perfect and the pace is nice.
In Yerevan, traditional culture mixes with a younger one. The older men play backgammon and cards on the streets. The younger people are drinking and eating at the cafes. There are frequent performances of traditional music and dance, but a comfortable (and not obsessive) relationship with information technology and western fashion. Somehow the city fathers have managed to keep McDonald’s and Starbucks out of the central part of town. Except for a few high end retail shops, most of the businesses seem small and local.The city hosts a weekend market where you can buy everything from used hand tools to handmade crafts and live chickens.
Armenian food is not great for vegetarians — lots of meat and not a lot of complexity in the seasonings. Still, I have had plenty of nice meals and I’ve found a few cafes that are attempting to innovate, although with mixed results. One served me “pad thai” that was not much more than linguini noodles cooked with eggs and a little chili flavoring. But I had a fabulous salmon dinner one night and Armenian wines are good. For visitors at least, everything here is really inexpensive except for hotels — maybe there aren’t enough of them but plenty of locals rent rooms and nice apartments.
To an outsider, Armenia seems to be at a sort of crossroads. It has recovered economically and culturally from the occupation by the Soviet Union. It has natural beauty, and a lovely capital city. But it is hard to predict where it will end up. Armenia is landlocked without much in the way of natural resources and its role in the region is unclear. Its dispute with Azerbaijan over the control of Nagorno Karabagh seems to be heating up again. Although, as a Christian nation (with almost no diversity), Armenia considers itself tied to Europe, Azerbaijan gets political cover from the west because of its oil resources.
I maybe understand why this community doesn’t feel as familiar to me as Greece, even though I grew up close to Armenian grandparents. Armenians have associated themselves with both Russians and Greeks over the past 3,000 years. Yerevan feels more like Russia than Greece to me, which makes sense geographically. Western Armenia — which is now part of Turkey and where my family originated — is probably more like Greek culture because Greeks and Armenians lived together in that part of Asia Minor. A couple of restaurant employees cringed when I suggested the culture here felt a little like Russia, so don’t mention it next time you are here (and what do I know, I have never been to Russia!).
Have you ever wondered why logs of mozzarella are called “Armenian string cheese”? Here is what string cheese looks like in Armenia — STRING.
I have two quibbles. The men here smoke constantly and everywhere. And many drivers do not “see” pedestrians.
Anyway, hats off to Armenia.