Sunday, January 9, 2011

Holiday Time

The tree in Gyumri's town square

We are concluding the holiday season here (at least I think we are) and it has been another learning experience since there are a number of differences from what we do in the US.

Firstly the big celebrations in Armenia are in January. “Nor Tari” (Armenian for New Year) is a country-wide holiday that ran this year from January 1 – 9. In the middle of that is the celebration of Christmas on January 6.

Second, the celebrations are more about get-togethers than gift giving. While people do give presents to children, I am told that gift exchanging between adults is not as common. There is “Dzmer Pap” (Father Winter) who looks like Santa Claus but is more in line with Father Christmas in the UK and other European nations. He brings gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas. No elves, reindeer or stockings were evident, but he has a sidekick named “Dzuyn Anush” or Snow Beauty.

Third, while Christmas trees seem to be common, all the ones I saw in Gyumri were artificial (in the main square, for sale to people for their homes). Considering that a large number of homes are heated with wood, and large stretches of the country seem to have no trees at all, it is understandable that no one would consider chopping down trees for a temporary decoration.

Fourth, the Christmas celebration itself is directed differently than I am used to. I recently saw a link to an old New York Times article (see here) that explained the concept of “Theophany” celebrated in the Armenian Church.

While there are no big holiday celebrations in December, Nor Tari is such a big deal that people are distracted by shopping and preparations for the month leading up to it. As the traditions are all about gatherings, and given the culture of hospitality here, people spend a huge amount of time (and, I’ve heard, putting themselves in debt) getting their houses ready for visitors and making sure there would be plenty to eat. That meant making cakes, barbecuing meats, preparing platters of fresh and dried fruits and stocking up on bottles of brandy, vodka and mineral water.

This also meant that it became more difficult (and more expensive) to buy food. Cakes here tend to be very egg-heavy so the demand for them skyrocketed in December. While there were complaints about egg shortages and price increases, some of us had the opportunity to explain supply and demand in a market economy as the reason for the escalations, and that it wasn't just people being "unfair".

Because of all of the preparations, things not involved with Nor Tari slow down for a month. And then most everything comes to a near complete halt for 10 days more. Starting on New Year’s Eve, people start to gather, either visiting friends and family or hosting them. Since everyone is on the move for several days, I understand that many houses leave at least one person behind when they go visiting in case someone visits their house at the same time. Dancing is involved, fireworks are lit, many toasts are made and much food is eaten.

As to what I did for the holidays, it was a mixed bag. Since all of the volunteers here are from the US (although some are naturalized citizens born elsewhere) we held to our own traditions while also observing or taking part in the ones taking place around us. And while you see some things creeping toward the way we do things (some youth groups having Christmas parties in late December, similar to the trick-or-treating I heard about in October) we were the exception with our full-blown events.

While some volunteers returned to the US for a vacation, similar to past years there were several volunteer gatherings around Armenia for those of us who didn’t. I went to one of those in Gavar, a town of about 30,000 near Lake Sevan. Twenty eight of us got together there for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners, to hang out and relax. Since we all come from different parts of the US, throughout the night people kept popping in and out to call families in different time zones. For many of the new volunteers, it was the first time away from family for the holidays so the mood was mixed at various times. But we all laughed, ate and had a good time (and with 28 people staying in four apartments it got a little tricky finding a comfortable place to sleep but we all managed).

The gathering in Gavar (thanks to Fred and Susan for the picture)

For New Year’s Eve, I went with a group of volunteers to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. As with Yerevan in Armenia, judging an entire country based on its capital or based on one short visit can be misleading. But I can’t help drawing comparisons between my current home and its neighbor, both of which were part of the Soviet Union and became independent at roughly the same time. Understanding that comparisons between Armenia and Georgia based on this one trip will not be reliable, I will still point out some notable differences between the two countries.

Georgia has more than twice the area of Armenia, more than three times the population and access to the Black Sea while Armenia is landlocked. While Armenia has recently solidified its ties with Russia, Georgia has hostile relations with it. Georgia also benefits from having all of its borders open while two of Armenia’s four are closed (although from a news article I read, the Georgia-Russia border crossing that is open is only open for Armenia’s sake). And the current government of Georgia took over on an anti-corruption platform that seems to have improved its prospects while the Armenian government is still struggling with corruption issues.

From a purely superficial standpoint, you see a lot of differences in the capital. People dress in a more European way, you see couples showing affection on the street, as an American you don’t stand out as much so the staring is less frequent, there are many more buildings that I would call “historic” (meaning you can tell the Soviets didn’t design them), there are traffic signs and signals that people tend to obey and they give right of way to pedestrians. And McDonald’s has a presence in Tbilisi which Yerevan has mercifully avoided.

But there are a lot of similarities also. There are churches everywhere, many people speak English, and there is a variety of restaurants. And each city has large squares, one of which used to have a statue of Lenin.

It was in this latter location that I rang in the New Year. While I swear I will never go to Times Square for New Year’s Eve, going to another country’s version is fine. While there was only one way to get into the square (and there were metal detectors to pass through) there was plenty of room to move around and I had no fear of being trapped next to someone who might vomit on my feet. There was a concert stage (with lots of lip-synching), fireworks were shot from the rooftops and the weather cooperated (cold but dry). After, I went back to my guesthouse and ate lots of food that the owners had prepared. It was a nice night.

The Tbilisi visit also involved combing through an interestingly varied flea market, walking around an ancient fortress atop a hill near the city center, visiting the thermal baths and just walking around soaking up the scenery. It is a great city and I look forward to a return visit. (You can see more pictures by following the link on the right side of the page).

Thermal Baths

The Fortress

I returned to Gyumri on the second of January but unfortunately have not seen the Nor Tari celebrations first hand. Many of the volunteers take part with the host families they are still living with or visit the ones they just moved out from, but mine is away in Russia at present. And one of the drawbacks of living in a city is that not everyone knows me so spontaneous invitations are not as common as they might be in a village. Add to that the flu I came down with and this week has been a quiet one for me. But from the stories I have heard, Nor Tari visits typically involve lots of food (and the same food from house to house and day to day), shots before noon and lots of dancing. It has been described by one fellow volunteer as an endurance event.

But I did see some of the flip side of the celebrations. As I said above, people go on shopping frenzies in December, and I learned that it is not just to prepare for guests – it is also because food is scarce for the first ten days of January. Returning from Tbilisi, I had no food in my apartment, but most stores were closed and those that were open weren’t getting restocked. It reminded me of a story one of my college professors told about living in a communist country (she was from East Germany and got out before the wall came down): “If you are walking down a street and you see people waiting in line, you get in line. It doesn’t matter what they are selling or if you need it, you buy it anyway because you can.” So I found myself going into every open store I saw to see what I could buy. And while I didn’t take her advice, I did see some interesting things (I couldn’t find potatoes, but I found coconuts - in three places). There was no bread for a while and I started calling people to tell them where I had spotted eggs, which had also come down in price by about 50%. By the 5th and 6th, there were a lot more places open but nothing was as busy as on a normal day.

On Christmas Day (January 6) I saw an interesting sight in the main square. A crowd had gathered and a platform had been set up in the center. On the platform, guarded by police since people were rushing it, people from the church were filling up bottles with water (presumably holy water for Christmas with respect to the baptism part of the observance – see the link above). On the edges of the square, people were selling empty soda and mineral water bottles for people to have filled.

As to other aspects of winter beyond the holidays, we finally got snow here. It fell on New Year’s Eve so I missed the actual snowfall but I had the pleasure of walking in the aftermath. Only about two inches fell in Gyumri but the streets don’t lend themselves to plowing (and I don’t know if there are plows anyway) and the sidewalks (to the extent they exist) weren’t getting cleared while everything was shut down. Most of the snow has melted now but there are still ice patches all over. I can’t really complain since I know New York has gotten buried in the past few weeks but if we get a meaningful amount of snow here it’s going to get interesting.

But for now, it’s back to business as usual.