Armenia, Armenia

The title of this post is especially for my sister (she’ll know why), but is a kind of summary of all the things that CP and I found to wonder at, to giggle about, and to ponder over during our seven days in this compelling country.

I described the layout of Yerevan as being somewhat Stalin-esque, and it is – lots of imposing, large buildings with quite overstated self-importance…. wide streets, many buildings seemingly blurring into a kind of overall grey. But look more closely, and there is much to enjoy. The older buildings, while in need of repair, often have many gracious decorative features, such as ornate arches around the windows, and jutting balconies of wrought iron, and fading facades in pastel colours. Some buildings reminded me of the architecture in the Ashrafiyeh part of Beirut (if it is still standing after last year’s bombardment…).

And there is nothing Stalinistic about the friendliness of the Armenians. We noticed it right from when we arrived at the airport – there were staff milling about waiting to help people with the visa process, and answer questions, they were keen to speak English, one complimented CP on his flawless, accent-free French (despite his American passport), and any smiles offered by us were returned warmly.

I noticed it too, the day we went to Echmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Perhaps others too know the feeling of going to a Holy Site, and feeling concerned to not inadvertently cause offense to anyone by doing something inappropriate. I remember in a mosque in Syria, a woman coming up to me and making tutting noises as she rearranged my headscarf for me, all the while frowning at me. Not sure why, perhaps an unruly hair was escaping. Or in Italian churches, the surliness of Italian nuns. Anyway, past experiences have led me to feel that, if a local person approaches me in a church it is because I am doing something wrong.

Not so in Armenia. First a priest came up to me (I knew he was a priest because he wore a long robe with a pointed hood – a kind of Hobbit suit) and asked me a question in Armenia. I apologised in Russian that I didn’t understand, so he repeated his question in Russian – he was asking where CP and I were from, and welcoming us to the church. He was friendly and warm and smiley. Then, a few minutes later, one of the women in cleaning overalls approached me. Again I thought I must have done something wrong, but Margarit translated and told me she was asking if I’d like to drink some of the holy water. It turned out there was a natural spring in the church, and at certain times of the day, one of the priests would lower a bucket into the well and draw out water for people. She was letting me know this was about to happen (or maybe it was happening because we foreigners were there – I’m not sure).

So you see – friendly, warm, nice.

Of course, there were still a few Soviet hangovers. CP changed money in one of the banks, and came back from the experience with stories of a woman in a fur coat imperiously trying to push in front of him in the queue, of a little shielded window with a wall all around it, but the area behind completely accessible a little further along the counter, of security guards who looked completely unconfident and unclear of their role in the place…

“Armenians are CRAZY about technology”, Anna told us. This conversation came in response to CP’s and my amazement at some of the technologically complex things in our apartment. In the shower, on the wall about the taps, there was a kind of remote control console, with various buttons and an LCD display, that apparently could do all sorts of amazing things to enhance the showering experience. It looked like something you would find in the arm of your standard Boeing 777 plane. We only worked out two of them – turning a special shower light, and getting the fan going while you were showering. All very fancy.

We also had a remote control for the lift in the apartment building. It took us several days to figure this one out. We had a choice of two buttons – the first would take us up in the lift, the second would take us down. The only problem was that the lift wasn’t quite intuitive enough to register where our request was coming from.

The trouble was, we thought pressing the UP button was saying, “we want to go up”. But invariably the lift would go up without stopping to open the doors for us first. In the end, we worked out the rule:

  • When you are downstairs, wanting to go up, start by pressing the ‘down’ button, in order to say, “Come down to me, so that I can go up”. If it is already down, it will simply open its doors. Then you can get in, and press the ‘up’ button.
  • When you are upstairs and want to go down, starting by pressing the ‘up’ button. As above, it will open its doors to you if it is already up.

Confusing? We thought so. But then, it took us several days to figure out the exchange rate too.

Sometimes friendliness translated into a kind of close surveillance when we went into souvenir and handcraft shops. We were often outnumbered by staff, and would have 1:1 attention, with staff standing close by our sides, and helpfully pointing out, “This is – scarf. This is – doll. This – for salt. This one green, this – blue.” We would nod, in recognition of this crucial information. “You can go upstairs now,” one of them told CP, and he dutifully went to inspect the upper level.

We were given excellent attention by guides and attendants when our friends took us to different museums. As we marvelled appropriately at the treasures in the Echmiadzin Treasury, we were told, “And now, you make take a photograph. If you wish.” Of course we would start to snap away, though CP murmered to me in passing that he was happy to be working in digital.

More later, as I am struggling with this unusual Bosnian keyboard, that swaps its Zs for Ys and confuses the bejeezus out of me.

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