Monday, February 21, 2011

The Things We Do For Love

This past week marked the two holidays Armenians celebrate that have some similarity to Valentine’s Day.

The first, Trndez (Candlemas), was originally connected with fire/sun worship, the coming of spring and fertility and now it is observed by the Armenian Apostolic Church as a feast of purification. It is celebrated on the night of February 13th (40 days after Armenian Christmas). The tradition for this holiday is to jump over a bonfire to either bring luck to newly married couples or give luck in love for the year. It’s believed that evil will be swept away and happiness will come to people’s homes. The ceremony is followed by traditional songs and dances around the fire. People also light candles from the fire to take them to their homes and keep them until the next Trndez holiday.

A lot of people gathered in the town square where a pile of wood and straw had been constructed. A number of priests had a ceremony around the pile and then the bishop lit it.

A group of children began the traditional dances and when the fire died down somewhat the jumping began. Some did a small jump over a corner of the fire while more adventurous souls went over the center.

Now is the time on Trndez when we dance...

Yes, that's me

A flame from the fire was brought into the church and people lit candles either from there or from the bonfire and carried them home. As it got darker over the course of the evening, you could see the candlelight leaving the square and being carried in all directions.

The second holiday celebrated is the day of Saint Sargis, the patron saint of young love. The date of the holiday is different each year, being 63 days before Easter. A tradition for this holiday is to fast all day and then to eat a piece of salty bread before going to bed. If you dream about someone giving you water, that is the person you will marry.

Other traditions of courtship, love and marriage here are also strikingly different than in the US today. Gender roles in Armenia tend to be very conservative, with very defined roles for men and women – what jobs are appropriate, what behaviors in public are appropriate (women rarely drive), and especially what each does with respect to family matters.

For example, we are told during training that it is never appropriate for an unmarried man and woman to be alone behind closed doors (when I meet with my tutor there are always other people in the room). Many times I will pass a woman I know on the street and she will not acknowledge me. I have heard stories about other Peace Corps volunteers dating Armenian women and being asked about intentions by the second date. While I have sometimes seen young couples holding hands while walking, I have never seen couples kissing in public. Men are expected to take the lead in relationships and the purity of the woman is expected to be preserved until the wedding night (the morning after the wedding night, tradition holds that the groom’s family brings the bride’s family a basket of red apples if certain evidence is noted in the bridal chamber – figure that one out for yourself). But unmarried women tend to dress in a way that could politely be described as “provocative”. But a recent news article described a poll that had been conducted to measure Armenian men’s attitudes toward how women dress and the headline mentioned that men like women who dress conservatively. But the body of the article mentioned that miniskirts and tight fitting clothing are very well favored. I’m not sure what to make of that.

So with these cultural norms, the stories I hear of courtship can be alarming to someone who is from the US. Since women are supposed to be demure, saying “no” to someone can be perceived as part of the ritual, interpreted as “no means yes”.

· One volunteer related a story in the village where he lived during training. A woman he knew was continually pursued by a man and she declined his advances. One day, a carful of men arrived at her house to “kidnap” her. She stayed in her house and asked that the message be relayed that she was not at home. When the volunteer did so, they suggested kidnapping him to get her attention. He avoided that and they eventually left.

· During language training, I attended a session about the toasting tradition that I wrote about previously. The woman leading the session explained that some toasts may begin with an anecdote and relayed a cheerful one that might be used at an engagement or wedding celebration. That anecdote related to a man who repeatedly went to a woman’s house professing his love. She repeatedly said no, until one day she didn’t. “This speaks to the power of true love” was the moral of the tale. Or the power of stalking, I thought.

This may also explain an incident I heard recently of two volunteers who were followed by a group of guys around a town, trying to get the women to get into their car. The pursuers did not give up until the women got into a taxi to take them home. There is no way to know if it was an attempted sexual assault or if the guys thought it was a normal way to get a woman’s attention. Needless to say, for female volunteers, the former must always be assumed making it an added level of stress that I am fortunate not to have to deal with.

But marriage is seen as so necessary for one’s well-being that eventually it seems everyone does get married even if they don’t necessarily want to. Another fellow volunteer relayed the story of her language tutor who married a few months ago:

How did she meet him? Her mother and his mother work together.

How long had she known him? She first saw him two years ago.

How long had they been dating? A few weeks.

How does her mother feel about it? VERY happy.

What kind of work does he do? He’s a programmer. He comes from a very good family.

Where will you live? With his family. His mother is a very good mother-in-law.

What will your mother [a widow] do all alone? When we move to Yerevan, she will live with us.

Will you continue to work? Until the end of the school year (often Armenian men do not want their wives to work.)

How old is he? 33 (the bride was 30, well past what is seen as a normal marrying age.)

She had been looking to marry an American and, after her best friend got engaged, this woman’s mother arranged this marriage.

At one of my English clubs recently, one of the participants (a 22 year old male) asked me why I am not married. Since this is a question we get all the time and the country is so religious, someone had tipped me off with a pretty much fool-proof answer a while back: “Miayn Astvats giti” (only God knows). He told me that he will definitely get married someday because he did not want to be alone when he died. We spoke about how most people I know do not get married until they are ready (if at all) and he acknowledged that he would not marry until he was ready either. But if the main reason a 22 year old wants to marry is not wanting to die alone, I am not so sure that would be the case.

But some things do seem to be changing, even if people don’t want to recognize it. While living in Solak, we could see the teenagers interacting a lot more closely than we had been told about in our cultural training. I heard stories about a girl who went out with her boyfriend at night and climbed in the window in the middle of the night to escape her parents’ notice. And in Gyumri, the park near where I live has dark areas that seem to be quite a “Lover’s Lane”. And I have heard that the phenomenon of unmarried couples living together has reached Yerevan.

So, as I wrote last time, the trends may be indicating more societal changes coming to Armenia. The question is whether people will be ready for them.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Trends and Things

I recently read an article that mentioned that the UN projects Armenia’s population in 2050 to be 2.3 – 2.5 million, equal to or lower than in 2010. How much lower is open to debate since government statistics here seem to be widely doubted (there are various reasons for that, but in this case one reason is that many people emigrated to Russia for work opportunities and still own property or have families here and are still counted as residents).

If, according to the official statistics, the population is currently 3.2 million, the decline would be about 25%. If alternate statistics are to be believed, the current population is about the same as projected in 2050, meaning no population growth in 40 years. In comparison, neighboring Azerbaijan is projected to double its population over the same period.

The article went on to mention that a UN poll revealed that 46% of adults surveyed only plan to have one child because they hope to leave the country. And Gallup conducted a poll about emigration patterns in post-Soviet countries in which 39% of Armenians polled said they would like to leave the country permanently. A man I know, educated and employed in a job he finds interesting, is nonetheless moving to Germany. “I love Armenia,” he told me, “but I don’t like living here now.” In many cases, men move to Russia on their own for work and their wives and children remain in Armenia.

What is surprising about all of this is that the Armenian people are very proud of their heritage, their history, their traditions and their families. But it is not surprising when you consider the lack of job opportunities, the cynicism toward the government and the level of corruption that is understood to exist in all spheres of life – education, health care, government, etc.

But this can lead to changes in family dynamics and traditions. Usually, a man lives with his parents until he marries and his bride moves in with his family. If there is more than one son, I have been told that the parents may decide which son will continue to live in the house after his marriage based on expectations about which son will better provide for his parents. One result of this is that the parents are taken care of as they age with one or more generations after them in the house. [As a side note, I am often met with surprise when I tell people that I live alone in New York, as does my mother.]

And so, emigration is one of the trends that are leading to what are likely to be fundamental changes in Armenian life. As it continues and the birth rate stays flat (or sometimes declines), more elderly people are living on their own, many unable to care for themselves since they never contemplated having to do so. As the lack of job opportunities continues, de facto single parent families proliferate (some of the fathers working abroad may visit home once a year or less frequently and their remittances – which incidentally is a large part of the Armenian economy - seem tantamount to alimony).

Another article I read pointed out that there are three trends noted in marriages here – the number of marriages declined 4% in 2010 compared to 2009, people are marrying later (men are waiting an average of three years longer and women four) and the divorce rate increased 6% compared to 2009. Considering the religious and patriarchal traditions in Armenia, the increase in the divorce rate is striking.

Then there is the trend of “brain-drain” as educated people leave Armenia. During our technical training some months back, one of the speakers talked about the double impact of this phenomenon, pointing out that not only do the most talented go elsewhere, but they leave less qualified people in charge of government and businesses. This, in turn, contributes to the stagnation in both and that “second layer” is looking to leave also. But I recently heard of an international development person critiquing a job-skills program proposal – saying that it is not a good idea since it would contribute to the brain drain if people get more skilled and then take those skills abroad to get work (to me, though, that logic sounded like the intellectual equivalent of the old saying about keeping women barefoot and pregnant).

Another interesting thing I heard recently related to higher education. Armenia requires two years of military service for all men in Armenia between ages 18 and 27 although university study allowed deferral of service until after graduation. I was told the other day, though, that the deferral is no longer available and the person relaying this told me that he expected it would probably lead to a decline in university enrollment (since most guys only enroll to take advantage of the deferral and probably wouldn’t bother after they are done with the army). Women, on the other hand, commonly seek a university education although society expects them not to pursue a career but rather to have and raise children. But if his prediction proves accurate, an increasing majority of people with higher education would be women.

So what does this all mean? To me, it sounds very similar to trends I have seen in the US over the years. The stigma of divorce began to lift as it became more common. There was an increase in single-parent families with women as heads of households. Women increasingly entered the workforce either due to being heads of households or out of necessity for two-income families in a bad economy. The population started getting older on average as people lived longer and the size of families declined.

More specific to Armenia, a lopsided proportion of educated women would likely further their movement into the workforce if industries take hold requiring specialized training. [There continue to be jobs seen as “men’s jobs” (physical labor, drivers, pilots) and there is a stigma attached to a woman doing that sort of work even though many women worked in factories during the Soviet period. But since manufacturing taking hold here again is not likely, these typical “men’s jobs” would continue to be in short supply.]

So, will Armenia change the way the US did as it moved out of the “Mad Men” era? Maybe, but it will depend in part on whether there is anyone left here.


After all I have said about the winter here being unusually mild, things definitely changed at the end of January. We had snow every day for a week and the temperatures plummeted (most mornings when I get up the outside temperature has been between 0 and -10 degrees Fahrenheit). While the accumulation hasn’t been too bad, there is little in the way of plowing and the snow gets packed down and icy. Getting around can be like walking on a bobsled course. Having said that, Gyumri looks really nice under the snow (pictures in the albums linked at right).

And while I was away for a day and a half, my pipes froze (I guess that can happen when the house isn't insulated) although they did not burst. I thought I could solve the issue by turning on the water heater – but instead the water heater blew up (literally – the pipes flew across the room, taking out the dishes in the drainboard in the process – luckily I was about a foot to the right of the explosion). I summoned the landlord and he also took a look at the water meter, noticing that the glass cover was cracked. "Must be some ice lodged there" said he. Repairmen came to take a look at the damage and helped get the pipes unfrozen (the funniest part was when one asked if I had a hair dryer to use to warm up the pipes). All seemed fine except for the prospect of not having hot water until the water heater is replaced. I let the water run for a while as requested but then shut it off. A while later, though, I heard water running again in the kitchen. Going in to investigate, I saw water spraying out of the water meter, traveling airborne across the kitchen and soaking everything. We turned off the water completely until the meter was replaced the next day. While the water is restored, the timing of hot water is yet to be determined. It looks like a return to bucket baths is in order.

I guess I spoke too soon.