My Experience

Impressions of Armenia
Impressions of Armenia
When I was asked about my impressions of Armenia, I was a bit taken aback. I am NOT Armenian and I grew up in New York City where it was an article of faith that nobody cared what you thought of the city and if you didn’t like it, it was because you were an idiot whose opinion was valueless anyway.
That being said, and for what it’s worth, here are some of my observations, being here for the second time – this time halfway into a two month stint as a volunteer.
Armenians are very friendly and helpful. It is not unusual for people to not only give you directions but to take you to your destination even if it is obviously out of their way. I love this about Armenians but it’s strange because they initially don’t look friendly and certainly don’t look helpful. Men, if they make eye contact at all, seem to be scowling. Women, especially the myriad stunning and stunningly attired ones, stare icily into space as they navigate on their 9-inch spike heels or platform shoes. Why women that naturally tall should wear such shoes is beyond my comprehension. Combine those with the broken pavements and you have a recipe for disaster. I would like to see hospital statistics on women with broken legs and ankles.
Did I mention how incredibly beautiful the women are?
What is it with Armenians and salt?  You don’t have to put a pound of salt on everything. Salt is NOT your friend.  If you stop using heavy doses of salt on everything, after a month your taste buds will actually let you get the flavor of the food.  Stop it.  It’s killing the tourists. I would like to see the statistics for strokes in Armenia.  I’ll bet it’s high.
This has been said so often that it is trite, but driving is not so much a skill here as a dare. Traffic lanes are merely suggestions.  Slamming on your brakes at an intersection so your bumper is 2 inches away from the shins of pedestrians who have the right-of-way is apparently mandatory.  I wonder if the police give fines if drivers don’t do this. Horns come on all cars, of course, but shouldn’t in Armenia.  As has been said of India, drivers here use their horns instead of their brakes.  This being said, I’ve seen few traffic collisions and I don’t know why.  There should be thousands every hour.
Oh, did I mention how incredibly beautiful and well dressed the women are?
Whoever designed and built Yerevan’s apartment elevators was a sadist or simply insane. If there are three or more people trying to use the elevator, you need a shoehorn.  The doors of some slam shut so fast and so hard that you need American football padding to save yourself from being severely injured.
I absolutely love the way Armenians treat their children. Any adult, seated on a bus, will take a child on her lap if there are no seats available.  In a restaurant, I saw a total stranger calm a crying toddler while the mother was busy paying for takeaway.  They are indulged but not spoiled or bratty.  It’s really lovely to watch how much Armenians adore their children, even when the children are not even theirs. I guess it takes a village.
I love those odd little mini vans (marshukas) that ply Yerevan’s streets.  Just when you think you couldn’t fit a blade of grass in, let alone another human, the door slides open and five more people get on.  I have learned several Armenian words to get the driver to stop as he begins to drive away before I have been able to get off.  So far “Bahek” has worked best.  I have NO IDEA what it means.  I hope it’s not insulting.  I have heard passengers say something that lets the driver know that they want to get off at the next stop.  The second word is “kangarin” or what sounds like that to me.  The first word is totally incomprehensible.  I would appreciate enlightenment if you are still reading this.  The drivers NEVER smile, but they always seem to know when you are holding a 100 dram piece out to them. If you are standing (or, really, crouching) and carrying a package on a crowded marshuka, a hand will reach out and take the package away from you so you can use both hands to steady yourself.  If that happened in New York, you’d never see the package again.  I love this about Armenians.
Yerevan has more public art than I’ve seen in any other city.  It’s wonderful. The Cascade ought to be listed as one of the wonders of the world.  Yerevansies love opera and classical music and ballet.  The very best seats in the music/opera hall are dirt cheap compared to similar seats in Los Angeles or New York.
Anytime anything is being done in Armenia, whether it’s construction or car repair, there are at least five Armenians standing around commenting and offering opinions.  I wonder if there is a law stipulating the number of bystanders that must be in attendance at any repair job.
Yerevan has wonderful and plentiful restaurants but one thing most tourists should shun like the plague is roast chicken, which is actually a butterflied whole chicken, first baked, then run over by a truck, then baked again.  It you like to eat chunks of wood, this is for you.  Another is Echmiadzin kofta.  I’m told it’s a delicacy.  It has the consistency of a wet, grey, artificial sponge.  It tastes worse.
People don’t actually walk in Yerevan; they stroll.  In New York they would be run off the sidewalk by pedestrians who are actually walking at a normal pace.  What’s worse, they stroll three to five abreast, completely blocking the sidewalk. In New York, you walk on the right.  In Guadalajara, Mexico, you walk on the left.  In Yerevan, you walk wherever you please.  Still, I feel completely safe walking Yerevan streets at any hour of the day or night.  I also know for a fact, that if I were in trouble, someone would step up and help out.
People ask me why I am here as a volunteer.  One not-too-bright man suggested that I was a spy for America.  It’s only when I explain that my wife is Armenian that it seems to make sense to them.  Armenians are insular.  I think they need to get over that.  Non-Armenians can love and have hope for Armenia.  Cultivate non-Armenians who love Armenia.  In this, exclusivity is not your friend.
I have read columns and op-ed pieces on line, written by young Armenians, saying that Armenia is finished; that it has no chance of becoming a real democracy, free of oligarchs and corruption. But listen, American democracy, even after hundreds of years, is still seeking what my favorite American history text called, “The Enduring Vision.”  Armenia, which has been a republic for only 24 years, cannot be expected to have all the kinks worked out yet.  It is in its infancy as a republic and must have its own enduring vision.  Keep working at it;  stick it out. If you read where America was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you’d wonder how we ever progressed against our ultra-rich and corrupt government figures.  If you give up, aren’t informed, don’t vote, don’t struggle, the last Armenian will have to turn out the lights as he/she leaves, and that could be soon.
Herb Schiff
AVC Volunteer

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