Born in Yerevan, Tatevik Aghababyan is a designer, perpetual traveler and location independent professional who spent over 15 years of her life in Germany before exploring options of repatriation beginning in 2016. Making a decision to curb her wanderlust and invest both knowledge and current resources into different projects in Armenia, particularly within the more rural communities, she is currently in the process of constructing the Debed Workation House project. Construction using only a local workforce began in 2017 and the project is slated to reach completion and accept its first guests by fall 2019.
The full story and the project progress can be found at www.debed.life and on Facebook.
Hello Tatev. Could you please tell us a little about the project, from its inception to the current process?
Hi! Before I start, I would like to state that we are building a workation, a concept new to many, and literally means a place where one can spend their vacation time dedicated to work. I live there myself and never take a vacation, because I simply live my life in such a way that I do not need one. I do not waste my energy at work, requiring a break, instead making sure I am able to recharge no matter where I am. My profession allows me to do this. I travel a lot, working from where i happen to be at that moment, stopping to complete a project before moving forward. This will be a place for those who are not constrained by locations to complete their work or those who would like to find themselves in a work retreat with strong connections with nature. In urban settings, besides just working, we are often wasting time and energy on the mundane, such as traffic. That has never been what I wanted for myself. Instead, this workation will offer a comfortable setting that increases productivity, has a beautiful view, is affordable to the masses, and the amenities feature everything necessary.
In Armenia, everything is centered around Yerevan. There are many resources all around, but no one is really paying any attention to these. I ended up in Lori very randomly, really; we had gone to visit with friends and fell in love with the nature there. It was the perfect place to escape the stifling Yerevan heat, to breathe in fresh, unpolluted air, to simply enjoy all that which exists around us. It was just a spark of thought for me at the time, but as my travels continued, the thought became an idea and then a concrete project. Construction should be completed by October 2019. I bought the land with the old, rotting structure on top. There was very little we could salvage from the original building, but we did manage to save the brick oven. The new space is built in such a way that the new kitchen will open into the summer kitchen where the brick oven stands. The buying process was really easy; most of these villages are pretty empty.
When we started to look for a place and began asking around, everyone was very encouraging. Because of the deserted feeling in most parts of Armenia, if anyone wishes to work on a project in any of these areas, it would be extremely easy to set up shop. In terms of everything else, as well, I have no complaints. It was all really smooth and easy, no problems arising at all. Not in the sale, in the registration, etc. The only area I see some difficulties in is the construction; I believe that is because of my lack of experience in this. However, I have pulled together an incredible team, met with a villager who promised to take care of the whole of the construction process, and I am happily working with him right now. We are employing only the local populace unless we need technicians from Vanadzor or Yerevan where the locals are lacking in the expertise. I did not want to be a foreigner in the village, one who had come and built a summer house. I wanted the villagers to get to know me, for me to learn from them. We need novelty in the villages, and I believe I have opened up Debed to a world of it.
For me, this is not a business project. I plan on living there. I am a voluntary Loretsi, which earns quite a few smiles and laughs.
What about your background? Where were you born and how did you spend the first years of your life?
I was born, raised, and spent the first 23 years of my life in Yerevan. I graduated from the State University’s Faculty of Applied Mathematics and spent some time trying to work in Yerevan. I did not see my future in Armenia at the time, certainly not in Yerevan. Despite my degree, I never wished to work in that field and found myself yearning for more. I wanted to be a designer, to work in the art industry. When the opportunity to study in Europe arose, I did not hesitate to grasp it. I have lived in Germany since 2005, graduated from the faculty of design at the University of Applied Sciences in Meinz, and spent quite a bit of time in Frankfurt, my favorite city. Over time, I began reviewing my values and that which I wanted from my life. There had been so much happening in the first years, but as things began to calm down I found myself unhappy with something, though I was not sure why. I took a sabbatical and traveled for half a year. The last stop on the world trip I took was Armenia.
I was supposed to return to my work in Frankfurt, but for some reason, I decided to buy this land, this little house. It seemed to be a rational next move, and when I did return to Frankfurt, I felt something was off. I felt that this was not my life. Within two weeks, I had sent in my resignation and began working freelance. I had taken the sabbatical to figure out what I wanted. I understood what I did not want as well. I preferred to live my life based on what my life at the moment demands.
Life in Germany is quite constant. I needed to be on the move. I wanted a more minimalist lifestyle. I wanted to be more flexible, not constrained with long-term contracts. About 3-4 years ago, that stability was exactly what I needed. Now, not so much. As an entrepreneur, it took about two months to understand the intricacies of freelance work. I wanted to be closer to my family and thought that if my clients are from around the world, does it really matter where I work out of? As a pilot project, I started to travel around Europe and Asia, coming to one main understanding. I did not want to live an exotic life, but I was not dependant on anything either. Technology is constantly developing and those like me, those looking for a proper work-life balance, are only going to multiply. People turn to me in wonder when I say I travel and work at the same time, but I keep thinking that this is very normal. It is something many can actually do. You can pick up your laptop and go to Dilijan and produce the same content you produce in Yerevan. All you have to do is get up and go. In my own life, I am constantly organizing things. It produces some very happy results.
What has your connection to Armenia been like in the past years?
Right now, I want all of us to love Armenia, to encourage her development, to really become connected. I left Armenia when I did not think I had a future here. I could not imagine my life here; I was young, with barely a proper education. It was the first period after the fall of the Soviet Union and everything was in a disarray. I felt disturbed by the fact that I did not feel that connection with Armenia while away in Germany. Yes, I loved my family, something was missing. After my travels, there was a revelation in me. It was a “Where have you been all my life?” moment! I’m not sure if it was the travel or my advancing age at this point that brought me to this moment. My memories activated my emotional connection; I became like a tourist, going to Garni and Geghart, exploring Sisian, and simply sightseeing.
As I started to build the workation house, many approached me asking “Why here?” and I was so confused. I kept looking around and wondering if they did not see all that I could see. They had become blinded to the beauty around them. Why should we not appreciate the country, the nature, the simplicity of all that we have? Why should we not enjoy it?
We try to teach our children to be patriotic in the schools, but if the memory capital does not exist, where would that patriotism come from? Why should it be less expensive for someone to travel to Greece or Georgia for a week, than to take a vacation within Armenia? Why should it cost less than 50 Euros to stay a night in Austria or Germany for two people in one room, where the minimum wage is above 1500 Euros, but nearly the same for a single person in Armenia. It is absurd. We need to give our children memories that they can refer to when they grow up. I remember the sweet bread my grandfather used to buy in Garni, how they baked lavash in a tonir. Now, one has to spend 50 euros to see the same things now.
There is something else that has been very hurtful. I hoped to find a tour or even just a map with information about places to visit in Lori, the roads to take along the way. I was constantly told that there is no demand, particularly hiking trails and multi-day tours to the regions. Most preferred to take overnight trips to Artsakh. Now, I love the beauty of Artsakh, but why discriminate? Lori and all the other regions are incredibly beautiful, as well. One can choose to go to Russia for two days, too. That is the wrong approach. You should explore every inch of your country. You do not need to take a tour either. I know I don’t have the money for such things. Instead, take a backpack and a map and just explore. That is how I met with so many incredible people. Walk around, discover new things, enjoy a meal with a stranger. It’s beyond interesting.
Do you have partners in your workation business?
People keep asking me why I do not take on an investor. I steadfastly refuse. The moment an investor walks in, it is all about the money and profits in comparison with other guest houses in the region. The fact that most of these places are full despite being so expensive means that we do not have enough lodgings for guests. Over 300,000 Armenians have passed into Georgia during the past year, out of which a great number are tourists. That is a huge number. This way, the memories are connected with other cities, other countries. Patriotism is born from more than all this as well. It is from the comfort you feel in your environment, in your home, most especially. A happy child will grow to have warm memories, while those who have seen family members suffering will always look outwards. This is the most important thing to remember.
You mentioned that the Workation House will be ready in October. Could you give more details about the design, what people might expect from staying there?
Of course! If everything goes as we expect, October will see our doors open. No matter what, I expect for it to be bustling by spring 2020, by the time we finish with everything necessary. And while the autumn in incredibly magical, it doesn’t hold a torch to the magnificence of spring in Debed. Our architect is Lusine Mkhoyan from Yerevan and we decided from the start that it would be a modern structure which keeps true to the traditional aesthetic. We did not wish to create an olden-style space, that’s not what it is. We are building a new house that meets the needs of the modern-day traveler. The sizes are comfortable for a long-term stay. You need personal space to stay for a few weeks or a few months. Hotels normally can tire one out because that is the point which they lack in most. Each room is fitted with a workstation, with individual bathrooms and bathing areas. If there are too many people coming and going, like in a hostel, it would affect the productivity and concentration of the guests.
This is a co-living home, where are sharing your common area with people of similar values and interesting personalities that are less likely to clash in this atmosphere. We have a large co-working space as well which allows for meetings and collaborations between guests, while a large kitchen and dining area is more loft-style. There is a summer kitchen, a library, and a living room. The whole space is expected to house up to 8 people, allowing for maximum comfort. It will be very affordable. Freelancers can work out of here, students working on their thesis may concentrate with ease. Dilijan, Georgia, and many other locations are quite close. It is beautiful, with the Smart Center extremely close.
Do you have any predictions for the development of Armenia in the next 10 years?
This is an interesting question, actually. It’s hard to say. It is very positive though. One major thing I have noticed is the break in negativity, and now people are more inclined to believe in the success of a new project. We are not a patient people. Hardy, touch, unbreakable, yes. But patience has never been our strong point. We should focus on our parts, and work with pleasure to do our best. This is ours. It is the right time. I made my decisions before the revolution, and right now, it brooks no argument. We have to get to work. I know that this project will succeed. I will be happy with any collaborations, but why would it not be a success if I am working and doing all that I can to push forward to my goal. I know there is no other option, for any of us.
Written by Tamar Najarian