Monday, May 21, 2012

My Building Has Every Convenience

Armenia is a country of varied locales, including villages, towns and cities.  Reflecting this variety is the different conditions in which people (including we volunteers) live.  And one of those that is common is Soviet apartment buildings.

This could be anywhere in the former Soviet Union
Most common are the Khrushchev era buildings known as “Khrushchovkas”.  The origin of these building is as follows (thanks to Wikipedia):

To ameliorate a severe housing shortage, during 1947-1951 Soviet architects evaluated various technologies attempting to reduce costs and completion time. During January 1950 an architects' convention, supervised by Khrushchev (then the party director of Moscow), declared low-cost, quick technologies the objective of Soviet architects.

The Khrushchovka design was an early attempt at industrialised and prefabricated building, the elements (or panels) made at concrete plants and trucked to the site as needed. Elevators were considered too costly and time consuming to build, and according to Soviet health/safety standards, five stories was the maximum height of a building without an elevator. Thus, almost all Khrushyovkas have five stories.

Krushchovka in Yerevan


Typically these buildings do not have a common lobby so there are many entrances to different areas of the building.  To find someone’s apartment, you must first know which side of the building and which entrance to use.  While they seem to have been clearly marked when built, many of the signs are now gone.  Therefore, getting directions is a challenge and usually involves directing people past multiple grocery stores, laundry lines and trash receptacles. Once you find the entrance, the quality of the door is variable also.

Security is not a priority
At least this one has a number

More often than not, I have to duck through the entrance of these buildings.

A lot of times I see resident listings inside the door.  There must have been an expectation of permanence since all of these signs I have seen are painted on wood, therefore not allowing for changes so if you are looking for someone who is a rental tenant, you will not see the name there. Inside the front door, you will also see mailboxes that don’t seem to be used, electric and gas meters and – in some buildings – a list of tenants who are late in paying their utilities. Some have garbage disposal chutes while in others you need to carry trash out to an external dumpster.  From what I have seen, the trash chutes that exist go to an area on the ground floor that may or may not be emptied regularly.

As a rule, the stairs are uneven.  Someone once told me that Soviet building specifications included the number of steps in a flight of stairs but nothing about the stair height.  As a result, you may see a very short step seemingly tacked onto the top of one to meet the quota.  

I have been in some of the buildings that have elevators.  In every one I have been in, pushing the call button won’t do anything if the elevator is already in motion so you need to listen for it to stop and then push.  They tend to be very narrow and any seem to have been designed to prove that three is a crowd.  In some cases, the elevator stops at the floor you are going to, while in others there is a landing between floors and you go either up or down the stairs to get to your destination.

Everyone owns their apartments and seem to put in their own doors, so they don’t all match although there are several styles that seem to be popular.

It is unclear to me who (if anyone) is responsible for the common areas, so I usually see worn out paint and exposed wiring but no functioning lights in the stairways so a flashlight is a good idea after dark. Any windows in the stairwells normally no longer have glass.

With unmarked entrances, the lack of names on doors, the lack of lighting, losing count when walking up multiple flights of stairs (floor markings are scarce also), taking an elevator that doesn’t stop on the floor you want and the commonality of doors, it is pretty easy to wind up in the wrong place. More than once, I have knocked on a door and been greeted by a confused look from the resident who was not the person I was expecting to see.

Inside the apartments themselves, it is a mixed bag.  If the family could afford to renovate, there may be modern appliances, nice bathroom fixtures and other nice features.  Most often, though, especially with rental units, everything is a wee bit dated. Some buildings have a common layout, so I have been to two apartments in separate buildings in Sevan that have identical floor plans.  Some have seemingly random rooms and oddly placed toilets compared to where the bathroom is.  

Kitchens tend to be functional and some can be roomy (by New York standards, at least).  While there is usually a stove and oven, they don't always work so electric ovens and propane stoves are pretty common.  The sinks tend to be pretty small.
When looking to rent an apartment, it is crucial to ask about the water schedule.  Depending on where you live, you may have water all the time, several hours a day or not at all.  In Gyumri, one of my fellow volunteers has water two hours per day while I have it 24/7.  A volunteer in a village an hour away has to carry water from a pipe on the street up four flights to his apartment.  In another village near him, a water truck comes in periodically for the residents to draw from.  All of this adds to the challenge of washing dishes in a miniature sink.  Buckets and barrels of stored water are the norm.

The bathrooms are more of a challenge.  Living on a water schedule not only makes bathing difficult, but also flushing.  Some store up water in buckets, some use the bathtub.  The faucet for the sink is sometimes the same faucet for the tub which makes filling buckets somewhat easier. 

As to the tub itself, Wilikpedia offers the following:

Khrushchyovkas featured combined bathrooms. They had been introduced with Ivan Zholtovsky's prize-winning Bolshaya Kaluzhskaya building, but Lagutenko continued the space-saving idea, replacing regular-sized bathtubs with 120 centimeter (4 foot) long "sitting baths". –°ompleted bathrooms cubicles, assembled at a Khoroshevsky plant, were trucked to the site; construction crews would lower them in place and connect the piping. Some theorists even considered combining toilet bowl functions with the shower's sink, but the idea was discarded.

With regard to the last line, all I can say is that I am glad that common sense prevailed. Here is a picture of one of the sitting baths mentioned. 

Heating also varies by building and what the family can afford.  Some have gas heaters, some electric and some just put up with the cold.

Also notable about these buildings is that many were designed as "disposable" with 25 year lives.  Given that the Soviet Union has already been gone for 21 years.....

It is also interesting to see how the standards evolved over the course of the Soviet period as many pre- Khrushchovka buildings survive today.  In real estate listings, you see buildings described as “Stalinist” and those are comparatively nice.  The ones I have been in have large rooms, high ceilings and the buildings have some character to them (reminding me of the desirable “pre-war” buildings in New York to an extent). Beyond that, they have many similarities with the later models – multiple entrances now lacking markings, unlighted stairways, unmaintained hallways, etc. They were discontinued during the Khrushchev era due to the unnecessary cost of the decorative elements.

When you rent an apartment here, you (usually) get it fully furnished.  This can include multiple sofa-beds (likely because Armenian families often have many people in one home and also to provide for visiting relatives), odd assortments of dishes and old clothing.  There is usually a locked room where the landlord will put away things that are not part of the rental but it is always an adventure to see what was left for the tenant to use.

In Gyumri, there are many of the Stalinist buildings (such as the two pictured above) and the five story Khrushchovkas.  Virtually all of the higher buildings collapsed during the earthquake, but there is a cluster that somehow survived even though everything around them was devastated.

Anything constructed after the earthquake has been limited to five stories and some are quite modern. There are areas being developed to provide long-overdue permanent housing to the people living in domiks, but they are a fair distance from the center of the city.

Mush II District
In the past few years, there has been a building spree in Yerevan and many of the buildings have real conveniences like central heating.  With prices that rival parts of the US, you can imagine that they are not selling too well.

So, yet again, I find myself happy for what I have.  My Gyumri apartment is comfortable and I still have my place in New York that I look forward to going back to.  And no matter what may happen when I get there, I can guarantee that I won't be complaining about it much.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Seasons Change and So Do I

After a seemingly endless winter, spring finally arrived here.  But, as with everything here still, the way it arrived this year surprised me.

When I left Gyumri for vacation at the end of March, it was about 30 degrees outside.  A few days earlier, I had spent a couple of hours chipping through the ice outside my doorway, some of it more than an inch thick.  The man next door had spent several days shoveling the snow out of the space between his iron gate and his house (I hesitate to call it a front yard but I suppose that's what it is) and had amassed a pile of snow more than three feet high in the street.  As I headed to the marshutni station, it was the first time in months I had gone outside in Gyumri without long underwear. Knowing I would not need it during vacation I didn't want to have to carry it around and figured I could manage for the short while until I reached Yerevan where it is typically warmer.

Two weeks later, I arrived home and the temperature in Gyumri was about 65 degrees. There was no trace of snow anywhere - even in the places that still did not get direct sunlight.  My neighbor's snow pile was gone as was the skating pond outside my door.  For the first time since September, I didn't need a hat, so sunblock is a daily necessity again.  

The next week, attending the conference I wrote about last time, I saw snow in that village but it was limited and I don't think I will be walking through any more of it in Armenia.

This has been quite a change from last year, when spring eased its way in more.  I recall last March, going for a long walk on roads that were mostly clear but still with pockets of snow - this year, long walks in March were out of the question.  April was mostly rain and gradual warming and May was beautiful.  This year, I went directly from my winter coat directly to the lightest jacket I have (when I even need a jacket, that is) and rain was limited to overnights until recently.  It has rained here every day so far in May.

We still experience significant changes in temperature over the course of a day - afternoons can be in the 60s or 70s, but it still can fall to the 30s and 40s at night.  I am still sleeping in the living room, but with only two blankets instead of three and, starting this week, without having to turn the heat on.  

The signs of spring are everywhere - and not just the flowers and leaves budding on the trees.  Women are outside, cleaning their rugs on the sidewalk or hanging out of their windows, washing them.  I notice people dismantling the heating pipes from their houses and carrying their wood stoves to storage sheds.  Outdoor cafes are starting to reopen, although one on the main square had to delay because their canopy collapsed under the snow this winter and is being reconstructed.  The Ferris wheel in the park is open again.  Cucumbers, spinach and other green vegetables are showing up in the markets again (as is basil, so I made my first batch of pesto this year). And the snow has been replaced by mud.

I am also getting to experience an election season here (the once-every-five-years parliamentary elections are this Sunday but the Presidential election is next year).  All over town, I see what I assume are lists of registered voters at polling stations and crowds around party and campaign offices.

Something ironic about a polling station at a puppet theater
The election date is not a firm one but is "called" within certain parameters, and only four weeks of campaigning are allowed prior to the election date. This past week has seen several rallies for the different parties, but in true Armenian tradition they include singing and traditional Armenian dancing.

Political rally in Gyumri

Next day, same place, different party

Having said that, until what happened in Yerevan yesterday, I had never heard of balloon and cigarette explosions at a political rally before either.  No such excitement at the Gyumri ones.  

Contrast all of that with the two-years or so of campaigning in the US (even with the explosion), and it is downright civilized.  Walking with a young lady who attends some of my programs the other day, she complained that the campaigning is so negative - the candidates don't talk about their accomplishments, they only talk about how bad their opponents are.  Sounds kinda familiar.......

Likewise, I am continuing to change with the seasons.  Although I did not want to do it, and had managed not to until recently, my nearly compulsive tracking of time now focuses more on how much longer I will be here than on how long I already have been (three months left, for those following along at home).  Senioritis has definitely set in, but that is accompanied by some low-level panic about trying to finish things or recruit people to carry on programs after I leave.  

With the nicer weather, I have resumed my weekend walking, continuing to discover pockets of the city that I had missed before or taking repeat looks at others.  In the course of these walks, I also get to see again how the city is evolving.  Domiks disappear as families finally get real housing, vacant stores are under reconstruction, a closed cafe becomes a rug store, another store that was once empty, then a cafe, then a pawnshop is now a pharmacy.  The lions are still in the park, but the cages seem even less secure when there was just a padlock.

Yes, there are two lions in there
Also, I see new puppies on the street who don't make me sad the way the winter puppies do - the current crop are more likely to survive (and maybe bite a future volunteer, but that is another issue).

And, speaking of which, spring means that the new group of volunteers will arrive soon (three weeks from now).  As I mentioned last year, it was odd moving into the "experienced" role as we entered our second year, but to the new group we will be the elder statesmen (okay - statespersons).  We have an online group to provide advice to the new people and reading through it makes me realize how far I have come in two years.  The panic I felt trying to get myself ready then has been replaced by melancholy as I start getting myself ready to go back (other than the low-level panic I mentioned above).  Maybe it is the calming influence of living in a slower-paced society.  Maybe it is getting older.

Or maybe it is realizing that, having seen what people here can live through and still dance at every possible occasion, I have learned a lot.