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.