April – August, 2013, Yerevan
For four months I lived in Yerevan. It felt good – if not like belonging, then resting. An extended period of time without planning the next destination. It had been a long time since I did that.
I arrived in a post-election fervour. The oligarchs had won, to nobody’s surprise. Elections are always rigged in Armenia. Impoverished people are paid 10,000 dram (around $25, in a country where the minimum wage constitutes around $100 a month) to vote for particular candidates; bus loads of elderly people are transported around polling stations and assisted right into the voting booth by ever-helpful candidates. Nobody was surprised when they won, but there was a rage swelling. Protests erupted daily in Freedom Square outside the Opera. I noticed remarkable differences from the protests I’m used to, these being dominated by people waving flags and chanting the name of their country in Armenian – “Hayastan! Hayastan!”
There appeared to be something of a dearth of grass-roots social movements in Armenia. As always on my journey, I dug under the surface, unearthing an ecology movement; fledgling feminist and LGBT movements and a tiny voracious queer scene. I visited the Women’s Resource Centre, some small feminist events and The Screenery: a monthly community film screening event, held in a variety of venues. The Screenery is run by Leslie, also one of our neighbours. It features a broad range of genres ranging from protest films (If a Tree Falls) to Persian and Armenian cinema. Held in a variety of bars and other indoor spaces during winter, the screenings moved outdoors as the weather warmed, with films projected onto the wall at the back of the house.
Our house and Leslie’s house next door were both owned by the same man: a portly ruddy-faced alcoholic named Anush, which roughly translates as ‘Sweetheart’. Anush had his garage under the mezzanine that runs around Leslie’s house. During my four months in Yerevan, I saw him working on a car in that garage approximately three times. When he wasn’t working on a car, Anush could usually be found at a table either inside or just outside the garage, depending on the weather, drinking vodka and playing games with one or more of his friends. “Just a moment please!” Anush would occasionally call out to Hrach and I on our way past the table. He would then command Hrach to translate while pouring us shots of vodka and elaborating a lengthy toast, usually to ‘mothers’ (he had recently lost his), or ‘friends around the world’. ‘Just a moment please’, from what I could make out, is Anush’s only English sentence. As landlords go, he’s not a bad one. The worst thing he ever did was bring a sack of live crayfish to the house and command Hrach to boil them alive. Anush is a patriarch, there is no arguing with him. Hrach, who had never purposely killed any creature before, shut me in the bedroom until the evil deed was done.
Both our two houses had a variety of international people living in them. Leslie shared her place with Dagna from Poland, and Simon, an inquisitive-minded chap from Sheffield, later replaced by the very loveable Pierro, from Venice. It was living with and around these people that really made my time in Yerevan.
Both houses were tucked away from the noise of the main street, part of a myriad of higgledy-piggledy houses without names or numbers. Hrach and I would sit in our shared yard most mornings, sipping Turkish Armenian coffee under the mulberry tree. Our own house was largely filled with Armenians from Aleppo, with one or two exceptions, like Courtney.
Courtney came to us in the spring; a chirpy Canadian girl who stayed a month in our little spare room. Garo also lived with us by then. Like Hrach, Garo grew up in the Armenian community in Aleppo, Syria. More and more Syrian-Armenians were coming to Yerevan, fleeing the conflict back home.
Thanks to the tree outside, our yard was a carpet of mulberries, many of which would get squished into our fraying carpets and the kitchen lino, which nobody but I seemed to clean. Harvesting mulberries with Courtney and Hrach’s friend Lennard is among my favourite Armenia memories.
One thing about staying in one place for so long is that suddenly you have routines. Twice a week at first, then less as the weather reached furnace point, I would go jogging through the gorge, on quiet roads that run alongside the river. Nobody goes jogging in Yerevan. People always stared. One day I discovered an outdoor gym right by the roadside. Big men would perch there on the exercise machines and gossip with bellies that billowed out over little shorts, then pump iron, drink vodka on car bonnets and drive home.
24th April is an important day for Armenians around the world. This is the day to remember the Armenian Genocide during the Ottoman Empire, from 1915 to 1923. Although the genocide is considered to have lasted several years, the 24th April was the date in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were rounded up and deported. In the Republic of Armenia, 24th April is a public holiday, when almost the entire population flocks to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial to lay flowers at the eternal flame. Hrach, Dagna, Simon and I joined hundreds of thousands of mourners on that sunny April day.
Sometime after the Presidential Elections, the Municipal Elections came around. After the flagrant abuse of process at elections, a conglomerate of NGOs formed and began recruiting volunteers to take part in the greatest independent electoral observation effort in Armenian history. The volunteers were recruited by a system of trust: friends of friends of friends of the NGO workers who began the initiative. It was a only a few days before the training that I received the email. I would never imagine myself observing elections in the UK, but in Yerevan, things felt different. I found myself at a polling station early one morning, surrounded by political hyenas. I focused my video camera on them and pressed record. Unlike others, I didn’t observe any truly outrageous abuses, but I did see plenty of problems, and there were undoubtedly dodgy things going on around the corner outside the polling station.
I discovered a tiny Soviet library with a surprisingly strong wifi connection not far from our house. It quickly became my favourite place for writing, on an old-fashioned wooden school desk, amidst dusty old books that nobody ever came to read. The only other visitors were two or three elderly men, who read newspapers at the desks, then doddered off back to who-knows-where.
Sveta would always wave at me on my way home from jogging or the library, my arms laden with groceries and the village eggs I buy from Sonja’s market stall. Sveta would also come by the house to collect our bottles, which we would save for her. I heard she has a house in a village somewhere, but it’s a long way to travel without much opportunity for bottle collecting, so mostly she sleeps under the flyover. There’s no water in her village either and I doubt she gets much opportunity to wash. Although unsurprisingly a bit mad, Sveta always seemed cheerful to me. A true survivor.
One day the Armenian Government suddenly decided to increase the public transport fare on the metro, buses and marshrutkas (shared minibuses) from 100 dram (around 15p / 25c) to 200 dram. Protests erupted once again in Freedom Square, this time taking up the cry “Haroor (100) dram! Haroor dram!” Small gangs of protesters rode buses and minibuses all day long, making speeches to encourage people not to pay more. Volunteers arrived regularly at bus stops in independent cars with “free car” written on the side, to help people boycott the transport system. The government caved in. The people were victorious. The fare will remain 100 dram.. for now.
At night Hrach and I could often be found in either Calumet or Music Factory, our two favourite bars. Calumet is all prayer flags, throws and a big Om sign on the wall. Music Factory is a rock bar, open later than most other bars. People would usually flock into Music Factory late at night, after Calumet and the other popular bars had closed. The ‘stiletto count’ would usually be very low in these venues. In most other bars, as in the streets and cafes in general, most women wear a ton of make-up with sculpted hairdos and nine inch heels.
23-24th January, 2013
After the melting slush of Yerevan, Armenia resembles a soft white cloud, undulating to the border. The marshrutka – a small shared minibus – bobs and dives over hidden potholes, swerving around slippery mountain edges. Most Yerevantsi – people from Yerevan – won’t leave the city at all in the winter, the roads are considered too treacherous.
I abandoned my plan to hitch-hike back to Turkey after two hours standing on the road. Cars were stopping, but I found myself somehow edgy and nervous, waving them away. I arrived at Yerevan bus station just in time for the last marshrutka to Tbilisi, costing 6,500 Dram – just under €12.
We are an interesting crew: myself, two older Armenian chaps, an Indian guy and a young bushy-haired Japanese traveller, who clambers on at the last minute, lugging his backpack in after him.
After the co-humiliation of the border-crossing, in which we are shepherded, scrutinised and eventually stamped into Georgia, I get chatting with the Indian guy. He’s from Delhi, but now lives in Batumi, where he runs a bar. He speaks not only fluent English and Georgian, but also Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Punjabi and Sanskrit. I wait with him for his friend’s car when the marshrutka drops us on the fringes of the city centre. They give me a ride to Rustavelli Avenue, where I meet my friend Petra. We gossip over a delicious soup made by her flatmate and drink a lot of tea.
Tbilisi is blue skies and sunshine when I arrive at Dadoni bus station the following morning and seek out the marshrutka to Akhaltsikhe – closest I can seemingly get to the Turkish border. Crossing almost the whole of Georgia is going to cost 12 Lari – just over €5.50. I approach a small stand where a woman sits shivering, newspaper gripped between fingerless gloves. She peers at me through small rectangular glasses over the rim of her scarf. “Coffee please.” I try not to smile. One should never smile in post-Soviet countries. She places the jazzve on her little gas burner, scooping the foam from the top just as it begins to simmer. I watch how she expertly places the jazzve on and off the hot sand, pouring a little more coffee into the plastic cup each time. “Didi matloba”, I tell her, hoping I’ve remembered it right. The scant Georgian I picked up while hitchhiking with Emée and Alfie three months ago seems to have trickled out of my ear.
A man shoves a bundle of wicker brooms through the door of my marshrutka. He’s the latest in a string of autonomous market vendors to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the waiting passengers. A woman comes by the open window, sells two bananas to one woman and a kilo of tangerines to another. Another boards the bus and regales us with a speech about the small Christian calendar she’s brandishing, for which she asks one Lari.
As soon as we leave Tbilisi, the road disappears into a cloud of drizzle. It’s a three hour ride to Akhaltsikhe.
The internet contains rumours of a bus into Turkey at 2:30pm. I ask around at the bus station and am directed to a woman living in a sketchy-looking hotel above the station building. I speak with her in Turkish and she tells me yes, a bus will come in one hour.
The coach comes. It’s a Turkish coach, completely empty but for the driver and another man, his assistant. They unload a quantity of what I take to be smuggled goods and I ask about the journey to Ardahan. “Yes, yes,” they tell me, “the bus will go there tomorrow.” Tomorrow? But I need to go now! I ask about Posof. Yes, they are going to the border, but they want 40 Lari – around €20. It’s far too much for a 10km journey. I walk away with my head down, not quite knowing what to do.
The coach pulls away. The woman upstairs is shouting down to me – “coach! Coach!” “Ardahan, no!” I shout up. The coach stops at a gas station further down the road. The woman is still shouting, pointing at the bus. I decide to give it one last shot. The men are not particularly friendly. They tell me to wait. They fill the bus with petrol, talk with some Georgian guys nearby and grab coffee and sandwiches, ignoring me the whole time. “OK, let’s go!” one of the guys tells me – I’m getting a free ride into Turkey.
As we drive, the guys warm a little, ask where I’m from and what my name is. They wait for me at the border while my passport is stamped, and we’re on the road to Ardahan.
As soon as I’m in Turkey, my attitude lifts. Hitchhiking, a problem? No way! I see the turning to Kars and ask the coach driver to stop.
A car skids to a halt as soon as I raise my thumb. “Nereye gidiyorsunuz?”I ask, happy to be speaking Turkish again. “Kars!” comes the reply. I grin and get in, text messaging Halil while chatting to the drivers – I’ll be with you in two hours.
3rd – 23rdJanuary, 2013
Yerevan is an ice-rink and we live in a fridge. The bathroom is a damp closet with a permanently wet floor – the kitchen too, since we turned off the fridge a few days ago to save electricity. The kitchen is colder than the fridge was anyway.
The Ghost left while we were in Iran – a seventeen year old boy from Iran, brought to Armenia by his parents some months earlier. I only ever met him twice during the ten days I was here six weeks ago. The Ghost huddled in his room playing computer games all day, door bolted, occasionally shuffling out to boil some pasta. He left without paying the rent.
A permanent ice patch has settled herself in the centre of the long, uneven driveway that leads down to Hrach’s steps. To keep warm, we cozy up in front of the gas heater in the hallway, nicknamed the Black Stone, after the one in Mecca. To us, this oversized Soviet metal contraption is equally as sacred. It’s the only heater in the house.
Outside, leaves bluster under heavy clouds. Stilletto heels ice-pick pavements, as Yerevan women demonstrate near-fatal feats of balance on the slab of ice that covers the city. They don’t put down grit in Armenia, and only the very biggest roads will occasionally get cleared. A journey to the shop is a treacherous venture.
Hrach works Canadian hours here in Yerevan, meaning work starts at 5:30pm and ends at half past midnight. The Canadian company he works for are keen to give the impression to business people they’re cold-calling across the US that their workers operate from an office inside Canada. This kind of work is quite typical in Armenia, where people have to fight for jobs. It’s not uncommon for a company to close a few months after starting, or to outsource their operations still further, to yet cheaper workers in China or Singapore.
We are nocturnal hermits, watching documentaries under blankets in front of the computer, drinking too much coffee and too much wine. Occasionally, we go out to a bar.
Lisa arrives from Tbilisi one blustery day, having hitchhiked well over 2,000km, through snowstorms, to visit me in Yerevan. It’s Lisa’s first time in Armenia and I’m intrigued by her reactions to a city I’m growing so accustomed to.
Lisa discovers parts of Yerevan I haven’t even noticed yet, like the old Blue Mosque in the South of the city centre. “It’s so fast!” she giggles as we jump onto the escalator down to the metro platform. It really is fast – strange how I never noticed before. “It’s so communist!” she says, as the metro screeches in. I impart my faithful advice, useful for all post-Soviet countries I’ve experienced thus far: “Don’t Smile. Drink!” It’s useful to remember that here, smiling is kind of weird. My friend Alex, who was born in the Soviet Union, explained it to me like this: If you smile, it means one of two things: 1. You have something to laugh about – that means you have something other people don’t have. 2. There’s something funny on the other person’s face.
It’s hard for people like us, who were socially conditioned from birth that if you meet a stranger’s eyes, you must smile, to respond to stares with a blank expression. Also, it’s hard to dis-attach myself from the idea that it’s rude to stare!
Braving the cold, Lisa and I take a marshrutka (shared minibus) 23km East of Yerevan, to the pre-Christian Garni temple – the only surviving one of it’s kind in Armenia.
Lisa is gone after a few days – too fast. The ice shows no sign of thawing. What has changed, is that I’m once again able to see Yerevan through a traveller’s eyes. There are curiosities and hidden corners, so much more to discover.