I’m fascinated by bathrooms. These places of respite can exacerbate or calm. Disgust or pacify. Some can even be beautiful. This one is cool; the coolest ever.
Sure, the barbed wire on the toilet seat looks like it’s trying too hard to stand out. But the thought of having your skin so close to barbed wire, even if it’s covered by hardened plastic, hints at danger, sadism, and plain crazy. I didn’t experiment by sitting on it for the sake of living on the edge (or, the wire, lol!) but the thought was enough. Then I moved on to the odd water basin that resembled those old soap dispensers in elementary school with the “soap” which was surely just chalk mixed with gravel squirted out water wildly and wastefully. But it was different.
Upon reflection I wondered why anyone bothered with making this one different. They could’ve just shoved some tile and porcelain into the would-be john and nobody would bat an eye. They didn’t, though, and what they did do is revolutionary.
Somebody decided that they were going to brave the treacherous tides of being the vanguard. They saw banality and consciously chose to add color and spice. Somebody thought that the way of doing things, even if it was the type of toilet seat and washing station they were going to choose, didn’t have to be predetermined and that they were going to decide the fate of this bathroom because it was theirs. They didn’t try to get all the other restaurants and bars to change their toilet seats and water stations (as far as I know), they just did what they thought was best for them. Now, thousands of people will see and use that toilet seat and they will see and use that water station and know that the next time they cut their hair, buy some shoes, vote, write a paragraph, talk to a boy or a girl, think to say something, they can be unordinary. They will know that they can decide freely and that it’s all right. For one day they experienced what it was like for their skin to be teased by trapped barbed wire and their hands washed with erratically spraying water because somebody had been irreverent to the conventions of bathroom design and, in the end, it wasn’t half bad.
Armenia likes to think it straddles the east and west. Almost every descriptive text introducing the country makes some reference to the mix of western and eastern traditions, culture, food, and other things. My experience at the Vivacell store painted this picture perfectly.
Well-appointed and sleek, the store was like any other you might expect to find in the west. Even more to the point, there was a kiosk where you punched in the reason for your visit and you were given an automatically generated number and waited your turn until called. Things are changing!
The east is too deeply ingrained to so easily disappear. After all, why wait until your number is called if, well, you don’t have to? Example 1: group of impatient, slightly angry-looking young men. Knowing that they were supposed to come after me and seeing that they were hovering near one of the help desks, I watched to see what they would do. After a customer got up and walked away from an agent’s desk, the pack leader brazenly and nonchalantly pulled up a chair without waiting for the number to be called. It looked like the agent was going to help him, too, were it not for a young lady in our group who pointed out that he had not waited his turn. He looked irritated that he had to wait for his number to be called but moved away.
My turn (Example 2)!
My agent was pleasant enough. She was very helpful, patient, and professional. She was signing me up and going through the terms when a woman whom she apparently knew came up to her in a hurry. Without paying much attention to the fact that I was sitting there being helped by her friend, she shot off some questions about how much she had outstanding on her account. The agent helping me seemed a bit uncomfortable that her session with me was being interrupted by her friend but she wasn’t able to manage much except to tell her to wait a moment before she could look up her balance while she was helping me, which she eventually did. The interrupting woman (hereafter, “the yazva woman”), ever neglecting that her friend was helping a customer and that there were several other people in the store waiting to be served, continued yapping away until she got her answer about how much she owed, shelled out a few thousand dram, told her friend, my agent, to apply it to her account, and sped out of the store. Helpless, the agent did as she was asked, took care of the payment, and then finished up on my account.
Thus the Vivacell store became an 18th century bazaar. Or maybe that’s what it already was and I was fooled by the luster of the sleek design. But I can’t be entirely disappointed.
Armenians love each other. However much they express superficial disdain for each other, they love each other. It’s something I haven’t seen with any other people. They want to help one another, especially if one of them swallows their pride and asks. You may want to say no because you’re tired or sick or angry but you do it anyway because you share some inexplicable thing with that other person. It’s magical.
Then there are the bastards who abuse this magic. Those who appeal to the craving of the potential helpers but at the expense of their other brethren. Order is an opportunity to abuse the orderly for them. My agent wanted to help – I don’t blame her. But the yazva woman cared not that she was wasting my time and that she was wasting the time of the people waiting behind me. That she was abusing the belief of the people there who were also seeking help by way of order and that they were equally worthy.
And if not that day, one day, a person in that line behind me will see another yazva unconcerned with the community and will learn that so that he may not have his time or money wasted, he must be the yazva. He must disrupt the order. He must cut in line. He must break the rules. He must trick and deceive before the other yazvas do it first. Until we become a nation of yazvas.
I should have asked the people in the line behind me, on behalf of the yazva, if they wanted to allow her to go ahead. I should have asked the yazva, courteously, whether my or the other peoples’ business was less important than hers. And I imagine if she was asked the next time and every time she tried to violate the order, even if she never changed, the community would grow stronger. And the community would have the power to reject the yazva and to refuse her and her self-interest. The community would recognize the agreement that to experience its magic, order must prevail and it would deem that the disorderly must not expect to reap the fruits of a system they are intent on violating.
And the potential yazvas would relish their newfound compatriots, feeling solace in choosing the good over the bad.
Our fight is within. Between the people concerned with putting themselves first and those concerned with putting their nation first; the people they love so. We choose every day which person we are through our actions. We can be the yazva or we can be the nation.
I choose to be the nation and I want you to join me.
First impressions can change so easily. That’s why it’s important to remember them. At least to know from where you came. So here are some first impressions:
The Airport: Last time I came, it looked like a gulag processing center. Now it puts LAX to shame. OK, that means nothing because LAX is the worst airport I’ve used besides the tent that doubles as the Paris terminal for RyanAir. Nevertheless, very nice. I even had the pleasure of encountering a smiling cop who offered to help with my visa paperwork (which entailed giving me the form and telling me I needed to fill it out). The sign as you enter the customs line which says, in English and Armenian, that it’s illegal to give or take bribes was a nice touch. Gotcha, Armenian government ;).
Last time, the taxi drivers just picked up your bags and tried to coerce you into their cab. I guess someone realized that might not leave the best first impression on visitors so they scrapped that plan. This time, we took AeroTaxi which are these Cube-looking cars that have a flat rate to downtown Yerevan, about 4500 AMD (i.e. ~$11). It was the most advanced automobile I’ve ever sat in because it offered free WiFi during the ride. Ya, in the car. And the car was brand new. There was also free candy which went uneaten. Nice touch though. The drive to town still felt like a makeshift rollercoaster ride but the idea that there was WiFi in the car kept my mind occupied until we got to the destination.
Vast, welcome differences at the airport. After all, you know what they say about those first impressions.
The Road: Casinos. More of them and bigger. On the ride to Yerevan, you’re flanked by sleazy-looking casinos reminiscent of a prepubescent Atlantic City (i.e. the place New Jerseyans and New Yorkers go until they discover Las Vegas). I could take the view that these are also where residents of Armenia go to donate money to the oligarchs who they lament for taking peoples’ money. Gambling is a waste of time, money, and mind but it’s a person’s own business if they want to piss their money away. I just wish they would spend more money and make them a little more classy so that their clientele could be some of the visitors to Armenia rather than the poor suckers in the country looking to get rich with money they probably can’t spare. Maybe they will – business looks like it’s doing well.
I have to confess that as we passed Lake Yerevan and our cab driver seemed to think he was driving Formula 1, I was hoping that Shavarsh Karapetyan was somewhere near in case the race we were in ended somewhere in the water. Thankfully, his heroism wasn’t needed – not like he needed any more godlike acts on his resume.
The City: We arrived into the hustle and bustle of a typical…Wednesday night. There was so much traffic you would think the clubs had just let out. No, just people shifting (no, not shift it and don’t act like you didn’t think that) about in the poppin’ cafe hoppin’ scene. Like good Diasporans, our destination was Northern (Հյուսիսային) Avenue. To compare again to the last time, Northern Avenue was just a big hole in the ground with a bunch of cranes surrounding it and now it’s a relatively bustling place.
Side note: I’m not going to make any arguments about whether the money spent to create Northern Avenue could have been better spent elsewhere. That can easily turn into a circular argument where the question of which sort of investment is preferable is tiredly discussed and, in reality, there will be no conclusion. Rather, I’m surprised so much money was spent on such an unspectacular property. Leading from the beautiful Hraparak/Republic Square through quaint Abovian Street to the majestic Opera, Northern Avenue hardly distinguishes itself in any way for such a central feature in the city. It seems to me more a manifestation of the undying need to emulate things European – nearly every European city has one of these pedestrian shopping boulevards – than to rediscover (discover?) a uniquely Armenian design befitting the location the Avenue commands in the center of the Armenian world. Architects and urban planners can feel free to destroy my purposeful neglect of the Soviet-style grandeur of Republic Square and the Opera but I think they could still agree that at least those have some Armenian character. That said, I like the clear view of the Opera from the Avenue so, at least, +1 for that.
After settling in, dinner was at Kavkaz (I hear the name is used by many eating establishments) where I had khnkali and fried sulungi which are both apparently Georgian. I also had Adana kebab as my main dish so I didn’t feel totally bad that I was having non-Armenian foods the first night I was in Armenia. The highlight, though, was նռան օղի (pomegranate vodka). It was delicious, like candy, but without forgetting that it was a vodka.
The waiter was more pleasant than many I’d encountered in the past. I try not to think much of it when a waiter outside of the U.S. is not like the overly attentive, oftentimes annoying waiters whose smiles and attention are at the expense of them incessantly hovering over your table and trying to get you to leave (is it just me or does every waiter in the U.S. get off their shift while I’m having dinner thus forcing me to pay before they leave? Though I’m not sure how their leaving is relevant). Anyway, he cracked a few rare smiles and that was that.
By the way, how you order food is a dead giveaway that you’re not a local. I don’t fully understand it but the way locals order food is one of the most fascinating things and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. I was awed last time and I don’t think much has changed this time. Orders at restaurants are made as commands such as, “you will bring this, this, and this.” For someone used to the meek western style of ordering food where you have to kiss the waiter’s ass to ensure that the food’s not late and didn’t touch any otherwise covered body parts or bodily fluid, this is a shock if there ever was one. In the past few days (because it’s already been a few days), I’ve heard people talk to waiters like what you see in movies about the Deep South during the Reconstruction. Actually, no. This may be more akin to how I imagine Xerxes from 300 might order food. One guy who looked like a grandpa seated with his grandchildren told a waiter that in order not to waste his or his family’s time to bring out the food at once. Not only is this a foreign concept to me, I absolutely refuse to become accustomed to what I feel is an unjustifiably discourteous way of communicating with another person. So, I out myself as an outsider every time I order food by asking for a menu item or, if I’m feeling audacious, by saying “please.” At least my conscience can rest easy on this front. And you know what, I’m going to believe that the waiters appreciate it.
First day. Lots of good. Some of the same old. All things considered, happy to be here. There is no place like it.
I’m William Bairamian. I’m from the Diaspora: the Armenian one. The center of it: Los Angeles. I’m now in the Hayrenik (Homeland). No, I wasn’t born here but yes, I consider it my homeland nonetheless.
This is my second time here. Last time was in 2007. Yes, it’s changed, as it seems to every time you blink. Of course, the change most people mean when they say it’s changed is of the superficial variety: new buildings, bigger cafes, nicer cars, better restaurants (all in Yerevan, mind you). There are other changes, more subtle, perhaps in the people, perhaps otherwise. I’m more interested in the latter. And observations. And opinions.
My commentary will be about Armenia, Armenian people, the Armenian people, the Diaspora, and related thoughts. If I happen to write about skydiving one day and you’re hard-pressed to find its connection to Armenia or Armenians, try not to hyperventilate and deal with it. I welcome any viewpoints, even critical ones. Just try to maintain a modicum of decorum with me and with others who might participate.
Now breathe. It’s fresh. And rancid. But never stale.