Leaving Armenia: What I’ll miss, what I won’t

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Mount Ararat and central Yerevan, viewed from the top of the Cascade complex.

For the first time in quite a while, I’m leaving Armenia for a non-trivial period of time. I’ll be back in a few months, but am seriously reconsidering my previous inertia toward longer-term residence. I haven’t fully made up my mind. There’s some novel personal reasons that enter into the deliberation lately, including a very short-lived and spectacularly failed marriage here, but I’m not letting a bad marriage ruin Armenia for me, and I’m not here to talk about that. I wanted to share some more general parting thoughts and observations.

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Musical fountains at Republic Square.

I’ve spent most of the last year and a half in Yerevan, with only two very brief visits back to the USA and a two-month stay in Berlin. I’ve been through the entire cycle of euphoria, disenchantment, and realignment with regard to living here. I came in early summer 2012 for the first time and loved it. I left in February 2013 hating it. I came back in late April 2013 more rebalanced.  I feel that my spirits are calm, and while I don’t speak from a position of very wide experience, I think I can say some things in a fairly level-headed way, without being unduly swayed by either a sour winter mood on the one hand, or the sunny rush of novelty on the other. I haven’t seen everything there is to see, but I think I’ve seen enough to have some credibility. I think.

What I’ll Miss

Density and compactness: Yerevan has the rather appealing quality of being large enough to be interesting, but small enough to be manageable and easy to get around. It’s not a small town, but it’s not sprawling.

From an Atlantan’s point of view, everything here is very easy. My permanent residence is in downtown Atlanta, but as we know, the centre in a place like Atlanta doesn’t have the same meaning; it’s not actually central to daily life. It’s more like a picture of post-industrial urban decay, overlayed with spots of revitalisation.

It’s actually a bit remarkable that I praise central Yerevan for convenience, because public transportation here is abysmal. It’s no European capital. Yerevan’s convenience comes out in a somewhat different way. Living in the inner centre, everything I need is a ludicrously short walk away, by the standards of virtually any other metropolis I’ve been to. It keeps me in shape while not compelling me to spend half a day walking all over creation. Walking is an interesting and pleasant experience, aesthetically and architecturally. I haven’t lived anywhere else where running errands was so easy and quick. The inner centre is nicely laid out in that regard.

Safety: Given its overall place on the global economic totem pole, one might expect Yerevan to be ridden with crime and a substantial degree of violence. But it’s really not. Sure, it’s got some petty crime, statistically speaking, but you can blithely walk in any part of Yerevan at 4 AM without worrying about your physical safety or having the expectation of being robbed.

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Abovyan Street in the winter.

I can’t vouch for your personal comfort walking at 4 AM in all parts of Yerevan, especially if you’re a woman walking alone, but comfort is one thing, physical safety is another. Armenia is not a place in which armed robbery, rape, murder, etc. happen to any non-negligible degree. Even disorderly public drunkenness doesn’t make much of an appearance here. It also doesn’t have the widespread social problems related to drugs, which are an unavoidable staple of life for all but the most exclusively gated bourgeoisie in the US, and many other places in the world, “developed world” and otherwise.

With the exception of particularly orderly Germanic capitals, in most places I’ve been to, you need to watch your ass. Most likely, nothing will happen to you on any given day, but you still learn the unconscious reflexes of looking over your shoulder and being aware of your surroundings. You need to know where the bad neighbourhoods are. Strung-out homeless junkies can cut you up. If you walk into the wrong bar, you could find yourself in quite a fix (don’t laugh, I got robbed in Buenos Aires this way). Get into the wrong taxi, you could find yourself at an ATM, cleaning out your checking account at gunpoint. It’s unlikely, but it’s certainly possible in principle, so you’re always calculating how to avoid risks. Life in Yerevan is blissfully free of this sort of tension. I’m actually afraid that I’ve become a bit complacent.

(Footnote: This umbrella of safety doesn’t appear to extend to open gays and lesbians, particularly ones participating in demonstrations or pride parades. Although I don’t have first-hand experience, Armenia is clearly a terrible place to be LGBT. See below.)

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Cascade complex, at about 5:30 AM on a summer morning.

  Mount Ararat: Catching a glimpse of Mount Ararat or Aragats from some elevated position in the city is always a sensational treat. And the view from the Cascade is beautiful; it can never get old. Armenia is undeniably scenic.

Informal flexibility: Armenia is not a place where one is straightjacketed by efficiency, business processes, workflows, or formal productisation.

You can buy pills, fruit, and just about anything else a la carte, by the single unit. You can have just about anything delivered to your home. It’s common to be personally acquainted with service personnel (electricians, plumbers, etc.) and officials and just call them up. Connections and first-name basis relationships go a long way everywhere. Custom, one-off requests are always an option, and just about anything is negotiable.

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Yes, they’re loading a papier-mâché swan into a Lada. Why? Because Armenia.

Some years ago, a relative of mine was trying to get a piano up to his 5th floor apartment. No matter what he did, it wouldn’t fit through the hallway, common areas, and front door. But, there was a construction crane outside, so he paid the operator a bit of money and, voila, the piano was hoisted up on the crane and delivered through his expansive living room window. You can do that in Armenia.

When I go to the doctor in Armenia, reception asks for my name and address, not eight pages of family medical history and insurance garbage. The medical practice charges the patient directly, based on what the market will bear. The doctor gives his mobile number and says to call whenever if I have any further questions. I got a [good] root canal, stint and filling (composite, not the cheap, toxic silver amalgam kind they love so much in the US) done for a grand total of US$60.

All this flexibility is just a distant fantasy in the US. It’s common elsewhere in the “developing world”, but I’ve found the Armenian implementation particularly humane and amicable.

Intellectually positive culture: Esteem for intelligence, education, the arts and literature is deeply embedded in Armenian culture, history and heritage.

That doesn’t mean all Armenians are highly intelligent, educated people. No, most definitely not. But, as in many European cultures, their values affirm intellectualism, at least nominally

In Armenia, backward provincialism is indicated by an objective lack of education. Simple people still profess admiration for scholarship and broad horizons. The main error of ignorant Armenians is their false belief that they, themselves, are educated people. They may be ignorant as can be, but they really think they’re not. They want to be educated. They want to feel educated. They want to seem educated. Calling someone a philistine rube (in so many words) is genuinely hurtful and offensive.

In the US, in contrast, backward provincialism is indicated by a deep-seated contempt for that high-falootin’ book-learnin’, a profound disdain, suspicion of, and outward hostility toward urbane intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. There is plenty in the American history of settlement by marginal social groups, as well as the influence of quirky theology and parochial frontiersmanship to explain its idiosyncratic know-nothingism, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the much worse of the two options.

High-quality food and agricultural products: I’m not an expert, but Armenian food staples seem to be relatively uncontaminated by modern agro-industrial processes, together with their endless herbicides, pesticides, contaminants, preservatives, antibiotics, artificial flavouring, heaps of processed and refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.These things are present in nearly everything we eat in the US, even the stuff whose nutritional value is supposedly inscrutable. I can tell a difference between Armenian fruits and vegetables and American ones in a heartbeat.  The Armenian ones are rich, flavourful, aromatic, and spoil quickly.

Armenia is one big farmer’s market, a place where “organic food” isn’t a boutique section of the supermarket, but the whole supermarket. Almost everything in Armenia is natural and grown more or less commonsensically.

If nothing else, consider that I’ve lost 15 kg (around 32 lbs) since I came here, even though I eat prodigiously (including plenty of carbs and desserts), observe no dietary restrictions, and do not follow any weight loss-oriented exercise programme (though I obviously do a fair bit of walking). In the US, I get the opposite effect; no matter what I eat, and no matter how little of it, I balloon out (and I walk a fair bit in Atlanta, too; I haven’t had a car in quite some time).

Like I said, I’m as far from an expert from this area as it gets. But you tell me what you think that means.

Beautiful scenery and pristine countryside: The regions of Armenia, in view of the country’s unmitigatedly mountainous relief, are stunningly beautiful.

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A bovine, somewhere north of Ijevan, in the northern Tavush province.

For all of the US’s variance of landscape and its biodiversity, a lot of it is ruined by sprawling suburbanisation and bland, utilitarian homogeneity–offering none of the benefits of the rural, while lacking the economic and aesthetic benefits of the city. In Armenia, when you go to the country, you are definitely in the country, and it’s captivating and distinctive.

20120921_151108Better yet, you don’t have to go far. Armenia is only about the size of Delaware, so when you want a real change of scenery, you’re looking at a few hours’ drive at most. Armenia’s mountainous topography also creates very distinct climactic areas. Yerevan is in a sunny valley that frequently traps hot air. Dilijan is only 60 mi (96 km) away, but has a much cooler, more overcast climate because of its surrounding mountains and different elevation. For its small size, Armenia offers many such contrasts within short reach.

Friendliness and congeniality: For all the melancholy crystallised in the Armenian historical experience, Armenians are generally friendly, hospitable and humane people who, like many “southern” cultures, place a high value on the quality of their relationships and shared experiences.

Although Armenians are far from the only culture with these values and priorities, it’s something I’ll miss. One does not find such spirit and life in the banality of quotidian Anglo-American life, the reservedness of northern Europeans, nor in the grittier, standoffish attitudes common in many harsher parts of the “developing world”.

– Late schedule: Yerevan doesn’t really get started until 10 AM or so, even on weekdays. Personally, I think that’s nice. The first time someone schedules me for an 8 AM meeting back in the US, I’m going to blow a gasket.

– Fashion and dress: While I have many critical things to say about the tastelessness of Yerevan youth, the fact remains that, apart from a few specifically cringeworthy and comical memes, the standard of dress and appearance in public is broadly much higher here than in the North American universe and many parts of Europe, even for men. I’m not looking forward to returning to an aesthetic consisting mostly of shorts and t-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps, and sweatpants, for grown professional adults and children alike, rural and urban.

Come to Armenia, it’ll teach you to dress like a civilised person. I’m not ashamed to say it really helped my wardrobe.

What I Won’t Miss

Isolation: After a while in Armenia, a feeling of profound isolation sets in.

Geopolitically, the country is literally isolated: it’s tiny, it’s landlocked, and 80% of its land borders are closed due to the Turkish-Azerbaijani blockade. It straddles the Muslim and Christian worlds, and sits at a Euro-Asiatic crossroads. It’s undergoing a demographic implosion, in the form of rapid emigration, brain drain and general depopulation.

I think these things, along with the nation’s innate fear of being lost or dissolved in larger currents, have caused the post-Soviet culture to develop in an especially insular and self-contained way.

The small market size also means logistical and transportation connections are poor. There are very few flights coming into Armenia from Western Europe, and most of them are not daily.

For a place that’s fairly close to Europe and claims to be closer, Europe feels very far away–culturally, spiritually, and geographically.

Marshrutkas: These flatulent camionetas are an eyesore and a very uncomfortable mode of transportation. They also have a knack for flipping over.

Enrique Peñalosa vanquished these polluting death trolleys in Bogotá; why can’t they do it here?

Infantilisation of adult children, authoritarian clan parenting: Children live with their parents here well into their late twenties and early thirties–until marriage, in other words, and quite possibly beyond.

On the surface of it, the reasons are economic; with the wage and employment situation being what it is, hardly anyone in their twenties or thirties can afford to live on their own. Naturally, this leads to a lot of “my roof, my rules” constraints on one’s life, and it’s a problem anywhere.

But there’s a lot more than that going on in Armenia, for cultural reasons quite apart from the underlying economics. It’s quite possible to raise one’s children into self-sufficient adults with well-formed, independent personalities and lives, even if they cohabit with their parents. Many Armenians don’t do that.

There are some deeply authoritarian, Oriental currents of parenting baked into Armenian culture, and the result is that lots of young people are effectively stunted. Boys are often raised to be spoiled, ineffective couch potatoes (definitely an Eastern tendency), while girls are chiseled into domestic slaves while being coddled and overprotected in all the wrong ways. No 25 year old woman should have an 11 PM “curfew” or be unable to attend art school because “my dad didn’t let me” (emphasis: not “wouldn’t pay for it”, but “didn’t let me”). I’ve met plenty of young men in their twenties that could afford to live separately, but their parents “won’t let them”.

The practical consequences of this for a lot of Armenian young adults is that they don’t evolve independent, self-sufficient social instincts, or form the essential social and professional connections they need in order to chart a distinct course in life, which is inherently at loggerheads with the individualistic orientation of modern capitalism, and with the demands the modern world will make of these people outside of Armenia, and increasingly, inside it, too.

It’s frustrating to see a prostrated, infantile, incapable 28 year old man who can’t seem to do anything without daddy’s help or approval. To the extent this is simply a consequence of economics forcing people to live under one roof with their parents and develop accordingly, or to the extent that limited employment opportunities restrict the accumulation of life experience, I sympathise. I really do. But to the extent this is Armenian cultural parochialism at its worst, which it absolutely is, it makes a bad situation much worse. Not letting the chicks leave the nest, literally or figuratively, leaves them woefully unprepared to negotiate the challenges of dealing with other people and building bridges of understanding and diplomacy. I’ve met my share of 30 year olds that don’t realise that there’s a way to resolve disagreements other than by leveraging out one’s parents. These kids are not learning the skills to solve their own problems, or live with the consequences of their own decisions. They are not learning how to fail and how to make mistakes. They’re not learning to pick up the pieces and move on. They’re learning that dad (or, as is often the case, mom) is The Oracle, the one who knocks, the one who is many, the first, the last.

When I call this out, I usually get some lyrical encomium in return about the ever-important “Armenian family values”. Much is made of these Armenian family values. However, as it turns out, it’s quite possible to have solid “family values” without treating your adult children like they’re four. Living with one’s parents long into adult life is normal in much of the world, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to such suffocating helplessness. I don’t doubt that many parents participating in this travesty have the best of intentions (though, certainly, some do it out of selfish motives), but, they’re still stunting their children.

You might ask why I care. What’s it to me how other cultures rear their young? Live and let live. Well, aside from the fact that it’s demoralising and depressing to see it play out, this goes in the “won’t miss it” pile for entirely selfish reasons: I’m almost 28, I live alone, rent on my own, work on my own, and regulate my life on my own. This makes me almost peer-less in Yerevan, since so many of my peers are not allowed to be grown-ups. It’s pretty hard to make friends with people who aren’t fully up and running by their mid-twenties, or even their thirties. That’s why I won’t miss it.

Dating and gender relations: This is strongly related to the last point.

I’ve basically sworn off Armenia as a place to find a romantic partner. You might assume, not unreasonably, that it’s due to the aftertaste left by my divorce, but it’s not. I just can’t handle the prevailing backwardness of this place.

For someone who is used to the relatively robust individualism of Western countries, dating in Armenia is quite challenging because women well into their twenties (and sometimes beyond) don’t have independent romantic, emotional and sexual lives–not “nice girls”, anyway; some have these things, but they come with other complications. There are some exceptions, but they’re definitely anomalous. Women pretty much come as a package deal with their parents, and you should expect your relationship with a grown 26-year old woman to be eerily reminiscent of high school dating, complete with curfews, chaperoning and scrutiny entirely unsuited to grown, self-actualised adults. I know a guy whose relationship with a 32 year old woman ended because her parents ran her life like she was 14.  32!

Premarital/extramarital cohabitation is pretty much out of question; what will people say? What will the neighbours think? Armenians’ obsession with policing the sexual behaviour of young women certainly doesn’t compare with that of the Muslim world, but it’s pretty high up there, though the primary enforcement tools seem to be gossip, shaming and stigma, rather than sharia.

The “cult of virginity” is alive and well in Armenia, if you can believe that here, now, in 2014, there’s a place on the globe where a lot of men wouldn’t marry a sexually “experienced” woman (outside of those parts of the world that have made a name for themselves precisely by specialising in building bridges to the 1500s). Armenian popular culture devotes a great deal of energy to this obsession with virginity, and, I’m told on good authority, gynaecologists devote a great deal of energy to hymen reconstruction. (In this unsurprising twist, it turns out that even Armenians have something in common humanity at large. Ain’t nothin’ but mammals.)

This shockingly uncontemporary backwardness doesn’t touch all segments of society equally; social class dovetails strongly here with cultural development and worldly awareness, and not all layers of society are yoked to these relics of bygone millenia. The problem is that it doesn’t matter; the intelligentsia may not be as I am describing, but they’ve long retreated as a source of cultural influence, mostly due to their drastically thinned-out ranks. Contemporary Armenian social mores are not shaped by the intelligentsia. The dark age of the village has dawned. If you didn’t rear your daughter like this, don’t take it personally; as far as I can tell, you’re a minority now.

The bottom line here from a dating perspective is that if you want to date and/or marry an Armenian girl in her twenties, it’s just as likely as not that you’re going to have to pour years of effort into ungluing her from her parents and helping her get some perspective, all while dealing with petty and meddlesome paternalistic obstacles that I haven’t seen since the era of my school girlfriend. If you come to Armenia to meet the ladies, be prepared to rewind your historical memory a few decades. If you’re lucky, you’re just transitioning ownership of the bride away from her parents and assuming it yourself. If you’re not as lucky, congratulations–you’ve just met your new bosses, who are going to try to run you like they do their neutered sons. And, you are looking for marriage, right? There’s no other acceptable long-term relationship orientation.

I don’t have time for this. When Armenia decides to join the post-1960s reality, I’ll be more interested. Until then, I’ll let the “family values” echo chamber do its thing.

If you’re a conventional woman thinking of meeting men here, I have no advice except “just no” and “run”. You read about Neanderthals in school, but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the twilight of life with the average young Armenian man reared in the regressive post-Soviet cultural environment. To say that your rights, freedoms and personal latitude, framed in the context of spousal and in-laws’ expectations, will be curtailed to “pre-feminist” levels is to put it very mildly indeed. Armenia also has an abysmal record on protecting women from spousal rape and physical abuse, which are all too commonly seen by police as “private matters”, and by society as dirty laundry that no wife should be airing in public. If you’re a woman coming from a Western upbringing, you really have no idea what you’re getting into.

Lastly, keep in mind that much of what I’ve had to say here goes for the youth, not necessarily for classical Yerevanians of Soviet extraction, or their descendants. However, as I said above, this regression is the dominant reality today. If you want to try to pick needles out of a haystack, be my guest, but it seems to me you’re better off just looking for love in a country not so overlooked by global progress.

Patronising advice: Speaking of “family values”, I won’t miss all the unsolicited advice from random strangers about how I really should get married and have children, because, don’t you know? Children are life’s greatest joy.

Maybe they are. Maybe not. Please let me figure out my desires, priorities and values for myself. I know my “elders” mean well, but there’s a reason I don’t turn to random 20 year olds and tell them about life’s greatest joy. “Teaching” comes naturally to older Armenians, and it’s annoying. Mutual respect means that at some point, we stop talking to people younger than us like they’re children.

Ethnic strife-driven discourse: This is the first time in my life I’ve wandered into a Yugoslavia-type psychological powder keg.

Be Sumgait, Baku and Karabakh as they may, and be the century-old Genocide as it may (this is coming from someone whose ancestors died in the Genocide), I will not participate in this Balkanised metaphysics where the Turks (both kinds) are simply known as “The Adversary” (which does, in fact, happen to be News.am’s term for Azerbaijan, seemingly). I have no wish to plant a tribalistic stake in this complex and multi-faceted problem.

But frankly, it seems to me that Armenia is no position to make enemies or make demands from the Turks. The kinds of realpolitik pragmatists who realise that don’t get to lead the country, though. Fanatical nationalism is ugly everywhere, and it’s ugly here too. Won’t miss it.

Intolerance: I left this one for last because it’s a big one.

With the amount of energy Armenians devote to their twin obsessions of virginity and homosexuality, they could seriously cure cancer, end world hunger, or invent nuclear fusion.

If you’re LGBT, the aforementioned security of Yerevan does not apply. Yerevan is a place where the firebombing of a gay-friendly bar is not at all out of question and pride parades are attacked by angry nationalist mobs (seemingly with tacit support from the police and the establishment). It makes me indescribably sad to see otherwise cultured, intelligent people wind up their vitriol toward gays and lesbians. What did gays and lesbians ever do to you? What on earth does other people’s sexual preference change in your life, that you take time out of your day to crinkle your nose and remark on how distasteful same-sex intimacy is? Armenians have problems–a lot of problems–that they would be well-served to focus on instead of sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong, in people’s romantic and sexual lives. Such attitudes seriously make me question whether Armenia can sustain evolution toward and integration with the Western world. I really feel for LGBT people in Armenia. Life isn’t easy for them.

While I’m hardly a crusader for extreme political correctness, I also would recommend that the workaday Armenian public strongly reconsider its offhand attitudes about Black people (as in Africans) and other “unfamiliar” ethnicities. I’ve seen a few black American volunteers and visitors here, and with the looks they get, they might as well be in a minstrel show. I know the morons gawking at them are from a 99%-monoethnic country with few foreign visitors, but they don’t get a pass. It doesn’t adorn Armenia to underscore that you live under a rock.