Friday, August 26, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin'

In our most recent conversation club, we spoke about generational differences, both in the US and in Armenia. Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion about Armenia referred back to how the older generation here was influenced by living most of their lives under Soviet rule.

Some of the differences noted relate to the economic conditions then (everyone had a job) compared to the relative freedom that people have now. I didn’t raise the point that the nostalgia for the better economic times doesn’t allow for the fact that the Soviet system probably couldn’t sustain itself much longer and the jobs likely would have gone away anyway.

But a common theme that comes up when I talk to people here is that not enough is changing in Armenia since it became an independent state. As I have mentioned before, the Soviet influence is everywhere – how the education system works, how the government operates, even how people dress is similar to Russia. People speak Russian all the time and much of the food is Russian influenced.

I usually point out that twenty years (the amount of time since Armenia has been independent this time) is nothing in the lifespan of a country – as a matter of fact, when the US had been independent of Great Britain for only 20 years, it was still struggling. I recognize that it is frustrating to live through the growing pains period of a newly independent country, but Armenia is not the first country to experience it, nor will it be the last. Still, I can understand that people want change - change they can believe in – and they can get impatient waiting for the things they are hungry for (this all sounds very familiar…).

So while the big things move slowly – electoral transparency, eradicating corruption, bringing the educational system in line with Western standards - in the relatively short period that I have been here, I have noticed some small but welcome changes to my temporary home.

I have recently seen recycling bins in Yerevan. They were for plastic bottles only and I have yet to see anything with respect to glass or paper, but it was nice to see that not only were they there, but they were nearly full. I don’t know if that would translate yet to other places (a lot of people in Gyumri throw all of their household trash in whatever empty lot or waterway is nearby as trash collection is very scattered) but it’s a nice start.

Near my house

I recently paid a visit to Solak, the village in which I lived when I first came to Armenia, and it seems to have gotten relatively prosperous. My host family there still doesn’t have running water, but the entryway to the property is now nicely paved. The 80-year old “tatik” who was nearly blind when I was there has had her vision corrected. Someone spent an enormous amount of money building a church on her property. The school has new windows.

I increasingly see dogs being led on leashes or otherwise being treated as pets as opposed to objects of target practice. It started when I was on my way from Yerevan on a marshutni and the woman next to me had a lap dog with a sweater on it. Since then, I have seen a man with a small puppy on a marshutni (it was terrified as any sane being should be) and people leading dogs around the main square in Gyumri on leashes. There are still a lot of strays on the streets and I also recently saw a woman encouraging her small grandson to throw rocks at a stray puppy, but last year that type of thing was all I saw.

As the days are very long here in summer, it is not often that I am out after dark. But the other night, as I was walking home through Gyumri, I was surprised to see streetlights along the way. They are spaced pretty far apart, they seem to be attached to poles with something like duct tape and they turn off relatively early (and the next block down is still pitch dark) but it was nice not to have to use my cel phone to light the way. I want to venture around more to see if I notice any more areas that are less dark than I remember but I am happy to see the development.

Bicycles are increasingly popular. Considering how most of the roads near me are unpaved and/or cobblestone, I have not considered buying one myself, but lately I have seen kids all over the city riding. I don’t see anyone on the main streets which are generally well paved since the traffic would make it unwise, but on the unpaved roads like mine.

The Gyumri park has a new ferris wheel from which you can get a pretty nice view of the city even though you only ride for one revolution (it moves pretty slowly so you can get a good look).

Last year's model

This Year's Model

And the park now also has a lion. I don’t know why, I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know where they will put him in the winter, but there is a live lion in a cage right next to some of the amusement rides (not in the old zoo area). It seems really docile, so the fact that there is a small chain and padlock as the only security isn’t too disturbing.

There is visible progress in the reconstruction of the cathedral and construction is in progress on rebuilding a hotel and a hospital that collapsed during the earthquake. There is still a lot of other construction going on around the city – most of it remains vacant, but it still carries on. So with all that, coming across a newly paved stretch of road, seeing people installing curbs outside their all seems that maybe there is hope starting to emerge in this city. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Cathedral - July 2010

Cathedral - August 2011

Newly paved road

Some things don’t change much but that can be good too. A barbershop that I noticed my first day here is sort of like Astor Place used to be – with a whole line of barbers in a very retro setting.

I have had numerous conversations lately with people about conserving the historical heritage here (similar to what New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission does) so here is hoping they can strike a good balance here.


On a completely unrelated note, I still wonder about what the hell is going on at home or if maybe I’m just a good luck charm.

I came to Armenia expecting frozen tundra and having to be concerned about earthquakes. As it turns out, this past winter was pretty mild while New York had one of its worst on record. And then the east coast has an earthquake and Armenia has a few routine ones that don't even register.

Next year, Armenia has elections and the US does also. If the elections here go smoothly, I may not go home, just to be safe.

Monday, August 8, 2011


As with everything else, it is interesting to watch the seasons change here, with some of the changes driven by weather and some by the calendar. It is well into summer here and having been to a few parts of the country lately, I have seen the season in a few different ways. And, for the first time since I have been in Armenia, I wore shorts in public (but more on that later).

In Gyumri, the weather went quickly from the sporadic-rain-most days in May through the dryness of June into the heat and thunderstorms of July and a very hot beginning of August. While the temperature hadn’t really gotten too hot until the end of July (highs in the 80s most days but then a week of 90 plus), the sun is intense. As a result, there is a considerable difference between how hot it feels in the sun compared to any shade you can find. Since the trees are regularly butchered (and quite a few were lost during the dark days after the earthquake and independence) the shade is often gained by picking a side of the street and relying on the shadows of buildings.

The stray dogs that normally prowl around usually all seem to be sleeping in the shade during the day (and howling all night long, but that is a different story). There are a few fountains in the city that operate on a regular basis and it is not uncommon on the hotter days to see kids strip to their underwear and jump in (boys only as this is a conservative city). Women walk with umbrellas as parasols and ice cream (which has its own place on the Armenian food pyramid) is available everywhere.

No matter how hot it gets, I normally only see young children wear shorts and teenagers / young men may wear cropped pants around town. As to grown men, I usually only see them in shorts near their homes. In our conversation club a few weeks ago, the other PCV and I brought this up and we were told that Armenian men wear shorts “all the time”. “In the [town] square?” we asked and the response of “No!” was accompanied by looks indicating what a silly question that was. Many men stick to the uniform of all black clothing although some cope with the heat by wearing white from head to toe. The last time I sported an outfit like that was when I made my first communion at the age of eight and I am not going to start again now. And since I tend to walk all over the place over the course of a day, I don’t want to have to plan and change outfits so I suffer in silence.

I have written before about how people pass the time strolling in the square but during the day it is much quieter there as people keep out of the sun. There are a few cafes there with outdoor space and I like to sit in them in the evening when it is cooler and the people-watching is at its best. With these places and others around town, the Armenian definition of summer can lead to what I consider bad business decisions. In training last year, we learned that regardless of what science tells you, summer in Armenia spans from June to August. Sure enough, on September 1 last year one of the outdoor-only places (and a destination for many visiting PCVs once they learn that some of the tables are literally in the trees) was closed for the season, even though the temperature was warm into early October.

Yerevan likewise takes on a different character in the warm weather. For several reasons (including showing visitors around and passing through to help with training of new volunteers) I have spent a fair amount of time there recently and there are quite a few things to recommend it: on the last Friday of every month, there is traditional Armenian dancing at the Cascade, including informal lessons for those who want to learn; there are outdoor cafes all over the city, outdoor concerts (including an impromptu one put together to congratulate Armenian chess players for winning an international tournament); and dancing fountains in Republic Square (similar in concept to the ones at the Bellagio casino in Vegas).

At the Cascade in Yerevan

But the heat in Yerevan is brutal. As it is in the Ararat valley, the temperature is regularly 10 – 15 degrees warmer than in Gyumri. In one respect, Armenia being land-locked is good because the humidity is pretty low in much of the country. Many places, however, have limited or no air conditioning. As a result, many people from Yerevan spend time in other parts of the country on weekends.

One of those places is Yeghenadzor, a town two hours south of Yerevan where I have spent some time this summer (at the end of the Border 2 Border walk and again for Fourth of July weekend). By some reports, it gets even hotter than Yerevan even though its elevation is slightly higher but there is a river that runs past the town and there are nice spots for a picnic and to swim. That region also has the best wine in the country (a somewhat easy mark to hit but you take what you can get).

Fellow PCV Greg in Yegh for July 4

Yegh is a pretty small place (about 8,000 people compared to Gyumri’s 170,000 nor so) and it is much more relaxed. As I saw lots of people in shorts everywhere I finally let myself be comfortable there.

Unlike the US, availability of most fruits and vegetables is dictated by the calendar and it is great to walk through the markets and see what is in season. I have been stocking up on berries (raspberries are currently everywhere although strawberries mostly came and went in June) and the tomatoes are exceptionally good this time of year. Peaches started making an appearance a few weeks ago and, while smaller than in earlier years, there are plenty of apricots around (last year’s crop was mostly wiped out by hail so people don’t seem to mind the small size as long as they are available). Watermelon and mulberries are abundant although the former is too much for me to eat alone and I am not a big fan of the latter. But I am told that blackberries will be available again soon so I am waiting.

Many households take advantage of the warm weather to refresh their bedding. Almost every mattress I have slept on here has been stuffed with wool and periodically the mattresses are emptied for the wool to be cleaned or replaced. Everywhere you go you see wool laid out to dry in the sun and I have seen people in the markets selling fresh wool sheared from their sheep. In Solak last year I often saw women beating the wool also although I haven’t seen that in Gyumri.

The season is also more conducive to the drying of laundry outdoors, although that is done year round as I wrote previously. As I noted before the clothes dry really quickly this time of year but in certain places people pay particular attention to how thing are put on the line (a fellow volunteer in Solak was chastised by his host mother last year because he had not grouped things by color – she made him take everything down and re-hang it). As a result, you are sometimes surprised by a colorfully coordinated scene as you walk by a yard.

Other features of summer are the trips to the hayfields to store up for winter (I did that last year and I was not in a rush to head back), day-long barbecues and kids in the streets until late at night. Armenia still observes daylight savings time even though that means it is light from about 6 AM to 10 PM at the height of summer (there is talk of joining Russia and Georgia in abandoning DST next year but that remains to be seen). And there are the broiling hot marshutnis….

There are youth camps throughout the summer that keep kids busy, help to teach them things and sometimes treat them to overnight stays away from home for the first time in their lives without their families. I worked at a five-day environmentally focused day camp in Gyumri last month and got to see the kids learn a lot about the world around them and have a lot of fun.

But the best part of the summer in Armenia is Vardavar. A capsule description (courtesy of Wikipedia) is as follows:

Origin - Although now a Christian tradition, Vardavar's history dates back to pagan times. The ancient festival is traditionally associated with the goddess Astghik, who was the goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The festivities associated with this religious observance of Astghik were named “Vartavar” because Armenians offered her roses as a celebration (“vart” means “rose” in Armenian), also releasing doves and sprinkling water on each other. Vartavar was celebrated during harvest time.

The Festival - Vardavar is currently celebrated 98 days (14 weeks) after Easter. During the day of Vardevar, people from a wide array of ages are allowed to douse strangers with water. It is common to see people pouring buckets of water from balconies on unsuspecting people walking below them. The festival is very popular among children as it is one day where they can get away with pulling pranks. It is also a means of refreshment on the usually hot and dry summer days of July.

As usual, there are variations of the celebration throughout the country. I hear that some regions celebrate a week later and have heard of different approached to who gets wet. Some volunteers relate stories about being targeted, being ambushed in the hallways of their buildings, having neighbors sneak into their apartments with buckets of water and other clever attacks.

In Gyumri, it seems that certain parts of the population are spared – mothers with small children, older people and tourists included. For the most part people left me alone and targeted the teenage girls.

I was sitting in my favorite café-on-the-square watching the kids douse one another when one came over and playfully threatened me with his bucket unless I gave him 1000 dram. When I declined he got his revenge.

My attacker

On the street where I live, the kids started to descend on me but one father on the block told them to stop until I said it was okay. The adults were also getting into the act and everyone seemed to like the fact that I wanted to take part. Considering that it was above 90 degrees by that point the cold water was welcome.

As one of the new Peace Corps people put it in a Facebook post: "Best. Holiday. Ever."

And from a Peace Corps Armenia perspective, summer means new volunteers and saying goodbye to the group before mine. The new volunteers will be sworn in next week and move to their sites the next day. As of right now, the number in Gyumri is dwindling as one left last month, a second on Sunday and a third leaves this Saturday. There have been a series of goodbyes, redistribution of things bought but not worth transporting to the US and some shuffling of apartments as people leave them. More importantly, it means that very familiar faces will no longer be seen except on Facebook as people move on with their lives.

But we have four new volunteers arriving in Gyumri next week. We from last year’s group will take on the “upperclassmen” role of getting people used to their new city, introducing them to the contacts we have made and helping people get used to not seeing the friends they saw every day in their training villages.

And this also means that I have less than one year left as my “Close of Service” date is August 5 of next year. Some from my group are already looking into extending to a third year while others are studying for GRE and Foreign Service exams for post-service opportunities. For me, I am still focusing on making myself understood here and trying to be useful but I must acknowledge that I haven’t spent much time thinking about all the things that I planned to (“What to do with the rest of my life?” being foremost) since two years seemed such a long time to do so.

So as I head into doing and experiencing things the second time around maybe bright ideas will pop into my head. Or maybe I will start to understand what people say to me the first time they say it. Meanwhile, I will enjoy my market fresh raspberry/ apricot / peach / plum combination smoothies in my yard and acknowledge that it’s summertime – and the livin’ is easy.