Somebody Else’s Armenia

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What a relief to meet these two smilers

I went to Armenia because I thought it would be a good place to write — pleasant without a lot of tourist distractions. I expected to feel a special connection in Armenia. It is my ancestral homeland. I have wonderful memories of spirited gatherings with my Armenian family. And I believe in genetic memory, a physiological connection to our ancestors’ experiences.

It was pleasant and quiet as I expected.  But I didn’t like Armenia so much.

Something is missing.

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I wasn’t feeling the love at Yerevan’s most celebrated public art installation

Community Dis-Spirit.  For a visitor at least, it is hard to see what is holding Yerevan  together besides business and a genocide that happened 100 years ago. In a month, I didn’t see much evidence of community or the things that define communities around the edges. Like artist enclaves, political cabals, nature freaks, foodies, street music or literary clubs.  Racial diversity. Gay pride parades. Sports. Village dogs.

There is a lot of public art but it is tasteless and heavy. The outdoor cafes are full of people eating and drinking but they seemed kind of bored.

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There is a little street art but it is kind of tentative. Come back Sergey Parajanov!

Maybe it’s there but I couldn’t find it.

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What a relief to see somebody selling books in front of a cool mural.

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Two seconds after I took this picture, this woman started screaming at me.  “You stupid tourist — move out of the way of that large bus behind you!” :

Low Happiness Quotient. You can learn a lot about a community by observing how people treat others in public. In Cambodia and Nepal, children wave from windows and bicycles. In Egypt, men greet each other with hugs and terms of endearment. The Japanese have a hundred small gestures to honor you. In Oakland, it’s easy to connect with almost anyone who is walking with a dog or a baby.

Not in Yerevan. People do not return smiles on the street. Shop employees get into your personal space to make sure you don’t steal stuff. There is a lot of angry car honking. Except for two restaurant owners, I found it almost impossible to engage people in casual conversation.

Of course, these are generalizations and impressions. I did meet some very nice people and Armenia has welcomed almost 20,000 refugees from Syria, which is more than just nice.

But still…in my three week nonscientific survey of people eating ice cream cones, no one was smiling, including the people with chocolate.  Maybe they are worried about the return of the Soviets or the country’s huge national debt.

Treatment of Old People.  After meeting Magda, (remember Magda?) I asked a young man working at a local café whether he knew why she has to beg.  She is 81. She has a passport that expired a year ago.  The young man became quite agitated and said “She should get a job.”  I asked him whether he thought an 81 year old woman should have to work and, if she should, where she would find work in a country where the unemployment rate is 25%.  He said it didn’t

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Old people are hired to sweep the streets and a lot of them have developed serious back deformities.

matter, “everyone must work.” I wanted to slap this callous young man!  But I think he represents the attitude of a lot of people in lovely Yerevan.  During my month of walking around, I noticed that everyone who is begging is old.  Old people wander through outdoor cafes trying to sell small bags of cherries or apricots.  They are hired to sweep the streets with tiny brooms.

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What a relief to see that someone did something mildly subversive.

The World Bank says more than a third of Armenians over the age of 65 live in poverty after accounting for pensions and other social programs.

There is poverty among the elderly everywhere. But I have never sensed the antagonism toward old people that I felt in Yerevan.  I didn’t once see anyone show any kindness toward elderly people begging or trying to sell fruit — although I often saw people shoo them away like they were diseased cats

Creepy Elite Class. In Yerevan, I got the feeling there is a group of men in Armani suits I don’t want to meet in a dark alley. Large black luxury vehicles challenge pedestrians in cross walks and burn rubber on city boulevards in full view of the Yerevan police (who hassle the Little People with loudspeakers all day and night). Small potatoes compared to reports of openly rigged elections, corrupt government deals with Russian corporations, and the open secret that investors pay the ruling family large sums for the privilege of a smooth ride.

More officially, the national leadership is in the process of recognizing Nagorno Karabakh as an independent state during peace negotiations with Azerbaijan addressing this very subject.  This seems like the diplomatic equivalent of a very big fuck you.

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What a relief to be in the mountains outside of Yerevan

To sum up….I know that’s a lot of complaining but, based on my experience with my own Armenian family, I was expecting people with humor and spirited conversation eating greasy shish kebabs with their fingers. Hopefully, I missed something. Or maybe today’s Armenia reflects a sour Soviet past that will eventually fade away.  In the meantime, Armenia has lots of natural beauty.

11 comments

  1. This is one of your most interesting posts Kim! I’ve found that every city/country I’ve visited has its own particular vibe, both in terms of the people and their environment. You’ve given us your special sense of both*.

    Not every place or person you encounter on trips is delightful, and sometimes people and places can be disconcertedly out of whack with our own sensibilities. Thanks for telling your truth.

    *BTW, I’ve found that the vibe of places change over time. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but it has. The first time I visited Ireland in the “70’s I found the cities (Belfast and Dublin) to be grey and the people to be dull. Fast forward through several other visits since then and now I find Ireland to be filled with color, the people full of energy, and zeitgeist to be energizing. The current Celtic Tiger is a sharp contrast to the worn out land of zombies I first encountered.

  2. Wow. Community Dis-spirit, creepy elite class, poor elder care, bad public art, corporate oligarchy, and the open secret that investors pay the elite ruling families for a smooth ride. You’re writing about the USA, right?

  3. Kim, I agree with Vic that places change, and think you’ve observed a moment in time affected by politics and economics. I lived in Barcelona for a year in 1974, the last year of Franco’s life, and I would have described the Catalán people as cold and reserved. I returned a couple of years ago and found a vibrant, open, friendly people, the opposite of what I’d known before. I think if Trump becomes president and makes the changes he hopes to make, we might become sour and angry, too.

  4. Thanks for your candid descriptions. I noticed a similar abandonment of older people in the Czech Republic about 12-15 years ago. They got caught in the transition from communism to capitalism. Not young enough to to take advantage of the new economy and no chance or incentive in their younger years to save for retirement, expecting to be taken care of by the government. Yet a couple years ago I didn’t see too many old women selling dandelions in the street. It takes time for a new economy to evolve. But the lack of respect is not something you would find in many other cultures, as we have experienced personally!

    1. Your description of what happened during the transition makes complete sense. The young man who said “everyone must work” — well, since Armenia famous for living off of the remittances of the diaspora, he is probably projecting a little…..

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