Back, Back, Back in the USSR


Advertisement
Armenia's flag
Asia » Armenia » West » Yerevan
June 26th 2019
Published: June 27th 2019
Edit Blog Post

Mt. Ararat, Armenia's holy mountainMt. Ararat, Armenia's holy mountainMt. Ararat, Armenia's holy mountain

Armenians trace their heritage to Noah's great great grandson, Hayk. According to the Bible and other ancient sources, Noah's ark landed on Ararat. Frustratingly, Ararat is on the wrong side of the Turkish border.
I've come up in the world. When I taught at AUA (American University of Armenia) in the summers of 2006 and 2007, I would find a gift basket waiting for me in my apartment when I first arrived. Typically, it would include a packet of crackers, a hunk of cheese, and a tomato. I'm back again, this time not as a lowly visiting professor, but as an external reviewer for the AUA Computer Science programs. This time my gift basket contains sweet rolls, a candy bar, and a banana!

Sunday, June 16, Bloom's Day




I used my free day to wander the streets of Yerevan, Armenia's capital. Appropriately, it's Bloom's Day, the day James Joyce's character, Leopold Bloom, wandered the streets of Dublin. Unlike Bloom, I do not encounter metaphorical witches and monsters. Instead, I fill-in the faded gaps in my memory.

Everyone has told me that Yerevan has changed. I don't see it. There are a few new buildings, and now cars stop for pedestrians, but otherwise, it seems the same. Groups of angry-looking men with cigarettes dangling from curled lips and dressed in black T-shirts and pointy shoes hang out on street corners. Slender, dark-haired women
"Buy art or flash boobz" (Graffiti outside my hotel.)"Buy art or flash boobz" (Graffiti outside my hotel.)"Buy art or flash boobz" (Graffiti outside my hotel.)

The street my hotel was on was dark, narrow, and littered with debris. No one would dare walk down a street like this at night in the US, but in Yerevan it's considered perfectly safe.
walk by dressed in torn jeans and T-shirts with made-up American slogans written on them ("Hope thats good things", "I am be lucky and happiness", "I heart NY California"). Old men sit in the shade smoking pipes and discussing politics. An old woman limps by holding out a cigar box for spare change. Over-sized Soviet-era statues loom over public spaces. It's a hot late-Spring day and the streets are congested with honking cars. I turn down Pushkin Street to visit my old neighborhood and remember that in Yerevan streets are named for poets and philosophers. I take refuge from the sun in a shady sidewalk cafe where I spend an hour nursing a tiny cup of viscous coffee.

Bloom in Nighttown




When the sun goes down Yerevan turns into Time Square on New Year's Eve. Unable to face their roasting apartments crammed with multiple generations of relatives, Yerevanites crowd the many public spaces where they will promenade and hang out until after midnight. At Republic Square I watch the nightly Belagio-style fountain show. Queen's We are the Champions blares from loudspeakers as firehose jets of water bathed in sparkling colored lights skyrocket above the oohs and ahhs. If one listens carefully, the groans of Lenin can be heard.

Apparently there is no concept of bedtime for children in Yerevan. At 11 PM kids race around Opera Square in electric toy cars while their parents sit on benches socializing. The sidewalk cafes at the base of the Cascade—a gigantic neo-Assyrian stairway—spill out onto the street. On Northern Avenue, Yerevan's sparkling two-level pedestrian mall, I have to step carefully over slithering GI Joes and other wind-up toys on offer for sleep-deprived kids propped up on sugar.

Beyond the pulsing chaos of the streets are Yerevan's jazz clubs. There are many fine musicians in Yerevan creating a fusion between modern Jazz and soulful traditional Armenian music. Years ago I was a regular at many of these places. Since that time many new clubs have sprouted. I duck into the 12 Club with a friend where a strange lute-like instrument with two necks is accompanied by keyboard, trumpet, and drums.

History Lesson




When I first came to Armenia it was a blank spot in my mental map. I assumed it was a backwater of history, but I was wrong. For two thousand years it was buffer and battleground between Persia and Rome, Persia and Constantinople, Baghdad and the Crusaders, and finally Russia and the Ottomans. At the start of the 20th Century, it was split in two. The eastern half would become part of the Soviet Union and gain its independence in 1991 when the USSR collapsed. The western half wouldn't be so lucky; they would suffer genocide and exile at the hands of the Turks.

Holy Water




Many of the refugees from Western Armenia would immigrate to California, mostly to Fresno. Two of these refugees were Kim Kardashian's grandparents. In 2015 she visited Armenia with her husband, Kanye West. From the accounts I heard, Kim was treated like visiting royalty. Unused to not being the center of attention, Kanye decided to give a free impromptu concert in front of Swan Lake on their last night in Yerevan. During the concert, Kanye jumped into the lake prompting everyone in the crowd to jump into the lake. This prompted the police to shut the concert down. Weeks later entrepreneurs were selling vials of the holy Kanye lake water on the streets of Yerevan.

Endless Meetings End




My purpose in Yerevan is to conduct a review
Years laterYears laterYears later

12 years later my students are still willing to join me for dinner!
of AUA's computer science programs to determine if they live up to international standards. This can be defined broadly or narrowly according to how scrupulous I divine that my employers want me to be. I am a member of a four-man committee. Cyrus, an Iranian-American from Minnesota State University is the other computer scientist on the committee. We know each other from the summer of 2007 at AUA, when we had some misadventures in neighboring Georgia (see Second Coming). Vardan and Irshat are the other two committee members. They are from AUA, but from programs unrelated to computer science. For three days we attend meetings from 9 AM until 7 PM. We meet with students, instructors, administrators, alumni, and employers. When the conversations drift into technical details, as they often did, I imagined Vardan and Irshat played pinball in their heads to stifle their screams of boredom. In the end, we concluded that the AUA computer science programs were noble and worthy, but recommended chiseling off the crust of the Soviet-era curriculum to bring the programs more in line with Western standards.

Excursions




As our reward, AUA sent Cyrus and me on an excursion. We visited Garni, the only
Scary EdgarScary EdgarScary Edgar

Scary Edgar was my driver while I was working for AUA.
Roman-era structure to survive the zeal of early Christians; Geghard, a medieval monastery where the lance that stabbed Jesus was kept, and Garni Gorge, which features pentagonal basalt columns rising hundreds of feet above the floor of the canyon. Neither Cyrus nor I had the heart to tell our organizers that we had been to these places multiple times, but it was good to get out of Yerevan. Also, we were provided with an attractive young AUA librarian named Tatev who acted as our tour guide and served as a buffer between us and Scary Edgar, our ill-tempered non-English speaking driver who looked like a Sicilian mobster. Cyrus and I were afraid of him, but Tatev ordered him around as if he were a well-trained German Shepherd.

The Dumbs of War




There are many Iranians living in Yerevan. It's only a couple of hours from here to the border by car. Most of my friends in Yerevan are from Iran, so the fact that US warships were gathering in the Persian Gulf made for interesting dinner conversations. Listening to them made me appreciate the subtle gamble at the heart of the nuclear deal. The agreement tipped the balance of power between the progressive and reactionary forces in Iran and could have had many positive long-range implications. Apparently, this subtlety was not appreciated by the current administration. The warships and broken deal have permanently shifted the balance of power back to the hardliners, who can forever point out that any new peace proposals from the US can always be overturned by whoever comes to power next.

Last Tango in Yerevan




Several years ago I started taking tango lessons, and so I was curious to know if there was much tango in Yerevan. To my surprise, I discovered that a week-long tango festival was about to begin. I would miss most of it, but not the opening night milonga (ball) to be held on the rooftop of a nearby hotel. I was nervous. I hadn't danced in several weeks; I didn't have the right clothes or shoes, and I had never been to a milonga where I knew absolutely no one.

The night of the milonga I cobbled together an outfit consisting of cargo pants, a black shirt, and a sports coat with a bird poop stain on the shoulder. My only shoes were hiking boots, but I
Picnic with the StarsPicnic with the StarsPicnic with the Stars

Iman, Saro, and me having a bite.
had dance "socks" designed to slip over athletic shoes turning them into ugly but functional dancing shoes.

Mr. Tux




The Facebook post said that the milonga would be from 7 PM to 2 AM. I arrived fashionably late at 8 PM only to discover that the local tradition is to have 2 hours of socializing before the dancing begins. I wandered over to the edge of the roof for a view of the city and Mt. Ararat in the distance. A few moments later I was joined by a wiry silver-haired man wearing a tuxedo. "Your tux looks great," I said. "I guess I'm really underdressed for this event."

"I am the greatest dancer in Yerevan," he replied. "But I don't do this type of dancing. This is how I dance." He began hopping and pirouetting in front of me. The event organizer walked over, looked at me and said, "Is everything alright over here?" I nodded, but understood the question to mean that Mr. Tux was a known fruitcake.

Dance demo over, Mr. Tux next declared: "I am also the greatest swimmer in Armenia." He made me guess his age. Charitably, I guessed 55. "No!"
The Symphony of StoneThe Symphony of StoneThe Symphony of Stone

Huge basalt columns in Garni Gorge
he bellowed pounding his chest. "I am 65!" He began describing his plan to swim the English Chanel in August, when the water temperature would be acceptably warm. I also learned that he was a professor of mathematics at Yerevan State University, AUA's competitor. This made me feel better about the stamp of approval I had given AUA. I don't think any of the instructors I interviewed were crazy.

Thankfully, Mr. Tux couldn't come up with the $15 entrada fee and had to leave before the dancing began. Poor Mr. Tux, all dressed up but nowhere to go.

Mr. President




The band was having some technical difficulties, but recorded music was playing. No one was dancing, but several ladies looked like they wanted to dance and it was 9:05. I summoned my courage and gave one of them the cabeceo (nod). Thankfully, talking is discouraged during tango, so I didn't have to worry about potential language barriers. With the dance floor virtually empty, I had several nice dances.

As the evening progressed, the large rooftop dance floor became crowded. It took effort to avoid collisions with couples weaving in and out of the line of dance.
Geghard Monastery Geghard Monastery Geghard Monastery

Where the spear that pierced the side of Jesus was kept.
Videographers filming the event with bulky cameras, bright lights, and drones provided additional obstacles. I spotted some excellent tango dancers, but there were also couples who looked like they were auditioning for Dancing with the Stars.

To my surprise, the president of AUA showed up with his wife and another woman around 10 PM. (I knew Armen and Nellie from previous years and had had dinner with them the night before.) Although not tango dancers, they had come to hear the famous band and see tango demonstrations to be done by famous professional dancers. (I was unaware of any of these happenings.) After the concert and demos the milonga resumed, but I had lost my tango mojo. Who wants to follow professional dancers? Instead, I offered to dance with the president's wife and her friend in an unused part of the rooftop. I gave each of them a mini-lesson. They took to it right away and vowed to sign up for lessons the following week.

Off-Road with Wally and Beaver




On my last day in Yerevan my ex-student Saro and his buddy Iman picked me up at my hotel in Saro's new Toyota FJ Cruiser. Saro had
Off Road IOff Road IOff Road I

Struggling up a muddy slope in Saro's FJ Cruiser.
flown to Dubai to buy the muscular off-road vehicle. Apparently the FJ is popular there for desert excursions (i.e., trips to the store). We drove into the countryside several hours from town. At one bend in the road Saro pulled over and began deflating the tires for a smoother ride. Air pressure sufficiently reduced, Saro engaged one of the FJ's several 4-wheel drive configurations and we simply drove off the road into a trackless field of mud.

It felt liberating to drive through fields and streams, totally unconstrained by roads, but also a bit disconcerting as there were always 360 ways to turn. It seemed like it would be easy (and embarrassing) to get lost. There were some problems. At one point we needed to scale a rutted, muddy 40-degree incline. Several times the FJ impotently drifted backward as Saro gunned the engine. Figuring out how to get up the hill was a bit like solving a chess problem.

We eventually arrived at a muddy pond called Mint Lake. (In Saro's accent Mint Lake sounded like Meat Lake.) The meadow around the lake was full of aromatic herbs ("mint" is apparently a generic term for herb) and psychedelic
Armenian CowboyArmenian CowboyArmenian Cowboy

This cowboy herded his bulls to the other side of the lake and back.
radiant wildflowers. Beyond the meadow were tall green hills still dotted with patches of snow.

We shared our picnic site with a heard of horny gay bulls trying to mount each other. Eventually, a cowboy on a horse rode out from his nearby rusted trailer home. He herded the bulls to the other side of the lake and back again. Not sure why.

During the picnic I learned that Saro and Iman had both been child stars on Iranian TV. Iman had been a regular on a show that sounded a bit like the Iranian equivalent of Leave it to Beaver. Saro's face, I later learned, is regularly seen on TV ads and billboards in Yerevan. To their credit, I had to drag this information out of them. How long, I wondered, would one have to hang out with the Olsen Twins before discovering that they had been childhood TV stars?


Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Advertisement

Armenian VodkaArmenian Vodka
Armenian Vodka

At a vendor's booth outside of Garni Tatev samples a shot of 1000 proof homemade vodka.
Geghard Monastery IIIGeghard Monastery III
Geghard Monastery III

Geghard is still an active monastery.
ArtistArtist
Artist

This cool-looking guy was sketching Cyrus as we sat in a cafe. I imagined he was a soulful Armenian artist, but the picture turned out to be a comical boardwalk caricature. He then demanded money from Cyrus.
Hero WorshipHero Worship
Hero Worship

Going out to dinner with Armen, the president of AUA, is like going out to dinner with a rock star. People come up to our table just to shake his hand.
Giant NapoleonGiant Napoleon
Giant Napoleon

A slice of a giant Napoleon was dessert for four.
AniAni
Ani

Dinner with former student ANi and her husband at Poplovak, one of my favorite music venues.
ColtColt
Colt

The cowboy's horse was accompanied by a colt.
HomesteadHomestead
Homestead

A crude homestead near Mint Lake


27th June 2019

I could read your travel blogs all day
Always good to read of your travel exploits John. I still look forward to the day when we execute one of these excursions together. Tangiers?
28th June 2019

echoes of Yerevan!
Jon, what a coincidence--Rotary colleague Tim Hegstrom and I just returned from 5 days in Armenia, where we delivered laptops and projectors for Wired Int'l, an NGO that makes available basic health and hygiene instruction on the Internet. We didn't see all the places you did, since we attended Wired sessions every day. Did travel to Gyumri one day and enjoyed country views. Enjoy your blogs a lot and would like to share a glass of wine with you some day to get caught up. Anne and I are enjoying retirement and stay busy with lots of stuff. Cheers and thanks for the Yerevan blog.

Tot: 0.275s; Tpl: 0.03s; cc: 8; qc: 47; dbt: 0.029s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb