Saturday, December 29, 2007

Armenia journal: December 29

12/29. Today we woke up and exchanged Christmas gifts (I got a book (This Is Your Brain on Music), chipotle gift card, subscription to Mens Health, and a great green sweater). We had some granola and yogurt for breakfast. Gagik picked us up and drove us out into the city.

Driving around Yerevan confirmed a lot of my initial impressions from the night before. Everything is made of concrete, or dark stone, or a pinkish grey stone that is pocked with little marks and bruises. People shuffled along the sidewalks and
through the streets, bundled up in dark winter coats and hats and scarves. Looking at people's faces, everyone looked grim and serious, like they had just undergone serious medical tests. Many women linked arms as they walked; many people smoked. Maybe they all looked the way they did because they had to pick out their paths in the middle of the road, or alongside construction areas and piles of debris and potholes and litter. As we waited at one stoplight I saw a bunch of small birds poking around the median separating the street from the sidewalk, and the median was full of stone rubble. What was this rubble from? Why was it still there? I wondered a lot about the trash, and broken streets, and piles of old stones. It looked like something had been bombed. The processes of construction seemed indistinguishable from destruction, but maybe that's just overly optimistic. Maybe it's a lesson in entropy.

Everything looks the same; the entire city is sepia-toned. The buildings, streets, wintry olive trees, gray skies, clouds, cobble-stones, people, stray dogs, cars, are all seen in a very narrow range of color. The visual monotony is broken by crates of fruit along the street, vendors selling oranges and pomegranates that seem utterly alien in their color. There are also a few strange monuments in the city, blocky statues of men standing resolutely in front of archways and walls, maybe as artifacts of the soviet past. There are stray dogs, sometimes roaming in small packs, but they don't seem too thin.

Our first stop was to an oriental rug factory and showroom, called Megerian. They're a big brand, featuring rugs from all over the world, but they are owned by Armenians and have a showroom in Manhattan. We saw 12 or so women working on a giant oriental rug for the Armenian president, nimbly knotting the wool threads and pressing them down to form patterns -- what dexterity and concentration it takes to prevent errors, all the while sitting indian-style on a bench. The girl who showed the rugs to us spoke excellent English and had an I-phone. She explained that they had previously tried to allow the women to make the rugs at home, but there were problems with quality control. Now, women in villages come in to work on these rugs, and this is one of the few job opportunities they have. It seemed as though they are trying to introduce a capitalist system of working formally for wages where none has existed before.

Next we went to this market area, called the Goom. (No idea how to spell it.) People swarmed through lanes of traffic to get to the market, which was a huge enclosed glass structure. Outside on thesidewalk people sold cow's feet, jauntily stuck in
pots in pairs of groups of four, and there was a table of pigs' heads. Someone had stuck an old cigarette in one pig's mouth. Inside the market, I was struck by the sweet rancid smell of meats. There were rabbits with the skin still on their legs (I was afraid it was a dog), pigs, cows, turkeys, chicken, ribs, small poultry, giant hunks of flesh hanging from hooks or lying on countertops, tongues, slabs of meat and people hacking at them with knives. The smell was repulsive. I had to breathe through my mouth and focus on the fruits and vegetables teeming on tables nearby: grapes hanging elegantly, pyramids of potatoes, stacks of apples and oranges, spices in large bowls, square hunks of cheese, dried fruit and nuts stacked and ordered all over the place. We bought some produce, potatoes, spices and flat bread for tonight's dinner and made our way back to the car.

Came home for lunch: chicken soup, beer biscuits, jello salad, some cokes. Delicious. Now preparing to do some reading or take a nap. Yesterday I read the first 100 pages of "Crime and Punishment" and am feeling good so far.

The language here: "hello" is "betev zez." "Thank you" is something hard, so we say "merci." "Happy new year" is something crazy that I usually can't remember. The characters they use are all swooping arcs and dipping lines, like mutant lower-case d's and b's. The language sounds somewhat harsh to the ear, it's all angry consonants bumping into each other and swearing, like the city traffic.


12/29. Lee had several of her Peace Corps volunteers over for dinner, and we enjoyed some good homemade Indian food. Then we loaded up into cars and drove over to Malkhas Jazz Club, a surprisingly cosmopolitan place where three Amernians (two young guys on keyboard and drums, an older guy on bass) banged out some classic jazz tunes. They sounded great; the keyboardist was really into the music and was bobbing his head and stretching his face with the music. The club was pretty empty since we arrived early in the night. I had a Katyak beer which nearly put me under the table; eventually I gave up trying to make conversation and instead focused on keeping my eyes open. I don't know why but I can't stay awake here -- jet lag? altitude? cumulative exhaustion? There was a table of a few men in the front corner of the place, who clapped for the drummer after his solo and seemed more gregarious than the other patrons. We were told they were the Armenian mafia, a force to be reckoned with here, and the Land Rovers outside the club belonged to them (they definitely stood out among the tin-box armada of Ladas that most people drive around in).

The Peace Corps folks were very friendly and chatty, and were refreshingly candid about the country and its challenges. The closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have crippled it economically; the nation's focus on the genocide and other historical wrongs, however justified, limit its ability to grow and adapt to a market economy. I have been feeling guilty about being so ignorant about Armenia while I'm here, so I've been cramming some guidebook history, and the whole thing makes your head spin -- it seems like the country has been this geopolitical pawn for centuries, has been wronged so many times and is now struggling to fend for itself in a post-Soviet era. It's interesting to be in a place that really got screwed over by communism.

Also in the jazz club: a tall, statuesque, beautiful woman -- maybe Russian? along with some male friends of hers. She seemed like a celebrity of some kind.

Also: jet lag is still kicking. I thought I was fine, but L and I suddenly slipped into this deep nap this afternoon -- Henry knocked on the door to wake us up for dinner and it was such a violent transition from sleep to consciousness. Really unexpected and strange. Like you're all wrapped up in darkness and warmth and then blankets are ripped away without warning.

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