Sometimes living my life feels like being the only passenger on some relentless train. Sitting in Heathrow waiting for my flight to Yerevan, I wondered what it would be like to be left behind at the train’s next stop.
I suspected the preoccupied man sitting next to me was Armen Der Kiureghian. With the support of UC Berkeley, Armen founded the American University of Armenia in response to the 1988 earthquake. The original mission of the university was to train graduate students to become earthquake engineers. I had heard that he would be on the same flight. Indeed, five hours later, when the driver met me/us at the airport in Yerevan it turned out that this was Armen. (Note: it seems like every other Armenian man is named Armen.)
For the next two months I will live at number 4 Sarian Street, apartment 11. As we pulled up in front of the building Armen warned me, “Your first impression won’t be favorable.” I followed the driver up three dark flights of stairs. The only light came from gaping holes in the walls. Were these made by canon balls, I wondered. Dusty tangles of pipes and wires led nowhere. This building must be centuries old, I thought to myself. My landlady would later tell me that the building was only 25 years old!
Fortunately, the interior of my apartment stands in stark contrast with the stairwell. This is apparently true all over the former Soviet Union, which is why Armen, who never saw my apartment, knew that my first impression wouldn’t be favorable. In Soviet times the agreement between the government and the citizens was that citizens would be responsible for the upkeep of the interiors of their apartments, while the government would be responsible for the upkeep of the exteriors– gardens and stairwells. The government never made good on its promise, but succeeded in creating a mindset that to this day prevents anyone from pulling a weed or taking a can of paint to a common hall.
My first impressions of my new apartment: parquet floors with faded Persian rugs. A small chandelier lights every room. The walls are drab and gray. The light switches are just below hip level. The doors between the rooms contain windows made of etched white glass. I have a piano, a TV, a cabinet filled with crystal, a library filled with Russian books, and a washing machine in my kitchen. My bedroom is small. It has two single beds and a balcony for drying clothes and smoking. The university had stocked my refrigerator with a few wedges of cheese, some apricot jam, yogurt, and a loaf of bread. With difficulty I tore off a piece. Twenty minutes later I would notice that I was still chewing it!
Early the next morning I stepped out on my balcony to survey the surrounding roofscape. I saw the same colorless, rectangular apartment building repeated again and again. In the distance giant cranes relentlessly cloned new ones. Mind numbing, I thought to myself, Soviet architecture at it’s best.
Later in the morning my landlady, Maya, paid a visit. She lives next door. She is about 50 and speaks no English. Dark eye shadow ran down her cheeks. She wanted to show me how to work everything. The numerous valves and switches in my apartment remind me of the inside of a submarine. The water supply goes off from 11 PM until the next morning, so some valves fill cisterns attached to the wall just in case the water doesn’t return. The valve above my stove cuts the gas supply. In broken English Maya told me to turn it off at night. What if I forget, I asked. She thought about this question for a moment, and then replied, “You wouldn’t be safe.” An electric switch in the hall heats the water in the cistern above the shower. In fact, this is the only supply of hot water in the apartment. Maya told me I have to turn it on two hours before I take a shower. The next day I will get up at 5:30 to throw the switch. At 7:30 I will take a scalding three-second shower. Maya invited me next door so she could give me soap for the washing machine. Her apartment is about the same size as mine. I couldn’t count how many people lived there. There were wall-to-wall beds in every room. They must resent the hell out of the fat American living next door with an entire apartment to himself, I worried.
I spent the next hour puttering around my apartment, doing nothing. I was hesitant to step outside; afraid I’d never find my way home. Eventually I convinced myself that getting lost was the whole point. I summoned my courage and walked out the front door to discover Yerevan.
The history of Armenia is a story of subjugation. Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Russians all took turns. Armenians survived by identifying themselves with their culture rather than their land or their conquests. As a result, Yerevan has more theaters, concert halls, and museums than most cities two or three times its size. Famous artists and writers, not politicians and generals, lend their names to the major avenues and their faces to the currency and statues. Distant music echoes through the city from dusk to dawn.
My apartment is only a few blocks from The Cascade– a monumental stairway that leads from the steps of the opera house to the top of a hill overlooking the city. On the way up I encountered three soldiers who looked disheveled and drunk. Their hats were cartoonishly large. They eyed me suspiciously, but decided I wasn’t worth hassling. At the top of The Cascade I got an unobstructed view of Mount Ararat (16,000′) and its neighbor, Little Ararat (14,000′). Like all good volcanoes, big and little Ararat arise abruptly out of the planes without the benefit of foothills to prevent the observer from being startled by their size. Even though they are in the distant background, they dwarf the behemoth apartment buildings in my foreground. Somewhere on the snow capped peek of Ararat lays the ruins of Noah’s ark. Perhaps if I look hard enough, I thought to myself.
I spent the next few hours wandering through parks and past outdoor cafes. Aside from the Babushkas who perpetually sweep steps with homemade brooms, every woman I saw was slender and wore fashionable, seductive clothes. I was constantly walking into walls and stepping into potholes.
I wanted to sit at a cafe and have a beer, but I had no Armenian money. It was Sunday, so all of the banks were closed and I couldn’t seem to find an ATM. Just as I contemplated returning to my apartment for a granola bar dinner, I bumped into Armen. He led me to an ATM and we spent the rest of the day shopping and sightseeing. At one stop we went into a grocery store to buy a few items. I discovered that each aisle is a separately owned business, so you have to buy whatever it is you want in one aisle before proceeding to the next.
Late that night the two of us ended up at a cafe overlooking a pond, eating beef Stroganoff and listening to a wonderful jazz band. The beautiful woman sitting next to us must have been a model. The owner sent a complementary bottle of champagne to her table and people kept asking her to be photographed with them. Fireworks lit up the sky celebrating the birth of Armenia’s first short-lived (1918 – 1921) republic.
First day of class today. American University is housed in the old Communist Party Headquarters for Political (Re-) Education. I asked the driver to pick me up at 8:00 so I would have a little time to prepare for my lectures. He came at 7:30, just as I was sitting down to the perfect cup of coffee. He whisked me away in a Volga and deposited me on the front steps. No one bothered to tell me that the place was closed until 9:00, so I sat in the lobby for an hour and a half thinking about coffee.
The university is well organized. The offices are nice and the bathrooms are few but clean. During lecture my students challenged me every opportunity they could get. I think in the end I won them over. Some of them came up to me afterward and said they enjoyed the lecture and learned a lot. I couldn’t help but notice how different this place is from the universities in Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
Barry Levine arrived last night. He’s the professor from San Francisco State who recruited me. He was going to call tonight to arrange dinner, but never did. I guess jetlag got the better of him. I ate dinner alone in a trendy outdoor cafe overlooking the plaza behind the Opera House. Whenever I dine alone I always feel awkward. I imagine everyone in the restaurant is thinking “What’s wrong with that guy” or “He must have gotten dumped” or “I’m glad I’m not him.”
A huge TV screen in my line of sight showed gangster rappers cavorting on Russian MTV, but incongruously, the music was nostalgic songs about falling in love (Let’s Fall in Love) and breaking up (I’m Mr. Lonely). I get so caught up in these songs, lately. The movie on the airplane featured Smokey Robinson doing a solo version of Tracks of my Tears. I alarmed the person sitting next to me by bursting into tears. It was a bittersweet evening. The weather was perfect, the music was perfect, the food was good, families strolled through the plaza, traffic bustled in the distance, and I felt the self-satisfied glow of once again being a pilgrim in an exotic land. Yet another perfect moment, I thought to myself, unshared.