The turnstiles in the Yerevan subway work the opposite way that turnstiles normally work. They are open all of the time, unless you try to walk through without depositing a token, then they snap shut. There is a line of turnstiles at the entrance, so it’s not clear if the token goes in the right slot or the left. Despite surging crowds behind me, I always hesitate as I approach. I notice the other men in line doing the same.
When I moved into my apartment I commented that the numerous valves and pipes reminded me of the inside of a submarine. Well now the pipes are leaking, so my apartment is the submarine in Das Boot. The sweaty engineer who frantically worked to plug leaks in the doomed vessel is my landlady’s husband. Wearing nothing but underpants and shoes, he and his wrenches have become a near permanent presence in my bathroom.
Artak, an AUA colleague, invited several of us over to his apartment for dinner a few nights ago. Actually, he invited us to eat at his parent’s sixth floor apartment. Artak’s apartment is on the fourth floor of the same building. Riding the claustrophobic, palsied elevator to the sixth floor made me decide to add “elevator mishap” to my list of probable causes of death in Armenia. After dinner we went down to Artak’s apartment. I was relieved to learn that we would have to take the stairs because people on the lower floors don’t pay their elevator fees, so all of the buttons for those floors have been gouged out of the control panel.
Artak is not one of the Armenians who miss the good old days of communism. After several vodkas he told us the only thing he misses about those times was the romantic fantasy he constructed about America from listening to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
People who have lived in the “Developing World” know the agony of watching CNN International. It’s essentially a loop of videotape that they run for a solid week. (At one point I thought that dozens of prisoners in Guantanamo had hung themselves.) Occasionally they interrupt the videotape to run “shows” that turn out to be infomercials for well-healed travelers.
This week I gave my “Big Lecture” to students, staff, faculty, and captains of industry: modeling emergent behavior using herds of virtual turtles. Actually, it’s not my talk, it’s Ralph Abraham’s. I guess I’m just covering it. I don’t think too many captains showed up. Last week I was touring Epigy, a local software giant. The president said he never received email notification of the talk. Probably they have learned to filter all emails coming from AUA.
Whenever I plan to give a good talk I always become self-conscious, I can hear the drone of my voice, the flatness of my jokes. I worry if the microphone is too loud, too soft, or is it on at all? I got lots of questions after the talk. Mostly they were from people who seemed to know a lot more about the subject than I did. The president of AUA, who is an epidemiologist, asked me to come to his office next week so we can explore applications of my turtles to his field.
I went to the ballet yesterday afternoon with Liesel and her young kids: Sabina and Solomon. Liesel’s husband, Jason, is also teaching a course at AUA this summer. Now that Barry is gone I’m hoping they’ll adopt me.
Going to ballets, symphonies, and operas is incredibly cheap in Yerevan. I think balcony seats only cost about $4. Of course audience members routinely talk, receive phone calls, and eat potato chips throughout these performances. As might be expected for the former Soviet Union, the dancing and costumes were incredible, but the libretto was a turgid allegory of the rape and ultimate triumph of Armenia. Liesel said they’re all about that.
After the ballet I went to a subterranean jazz club near my apartment to hear the latest Avant-garde music from Germany. It was so Avant-garde that I first thought it was a parody. It was like walking past a row of practice rooms in a music school and thinking “Hey, that could almost be something,” and then a moment later thinking “No, I guess not.” I ditched out at intermission. No big deal, the ticket was only about $6. I grabbed a bite to eat at an outdoor cafe and listened to a band do decent Santana covers.
(I tried the jazz club again tonight and heard a French composer playing a recording of his piece “Sobs of an exiled Uzbek poet accompanied by snare drum.”)
One of the instruments that stood out in last night’s cacophony was the duduc, a double reed flute that has a long history in Armenia. (Duduc music was featured in the movie Gladiator.) When I hear it played I get this vision of a shepherd watching over his flock just before sunrise in the desert. To sooth his broken heart he is playing a soulful and exotic melody on his duduc.
Inspired, I bought a duduc from an old man in the market this morning. I hurried home and spent the next hour hyperventilating into the damned thing without producing a single coherent note.
My fantasy of barking orders in Russian to waiters and shopkeepers is being savaged by the reality of daily pronunciation drills and memorizing lists of words. I haven’t even gotten to the stage where I can form a sentence. I try to attach each new word to some node in my semantic web. The connections are pretty tenuous, though. Like “mazlo” is the Russian word for oil (and butter). “Mazlo” sounds like “Lazlo.” Victor Lazlo was the freedom fighter in Casablanca, and he had oily hair, didn’t he? “Placha” is the Russian word for “bad.” That’s easy, I think “placha” also means “bad” in Klingon.
At night I sit on a bench in Opera Square and study my Russian. It’s still light at 10 PM. Children ten, eight, even five years old roll past on their roller blades and bicycles. Their parents watch from the benches. Teenagers and young adults sit in big groups gossiping and laughing. I worry about the man sitting next to me with the plastic bag. Is he following me? Soon my paranoia will get the best of me and I’ll leave.
I look down at my page of Russian vocabulary: house, room, window, table, spoon, knife. I might as well be in solitary confinement. Language is the first step to submersion in the matrix. Packages, signs, announcements, and overheard conversations are slow to yield their meaning. Only now the Cyrillic letters are beginning to speak to me. The fifth time I pass a particular sign on my route home from work I can sound it out: “raymont.” Ecstatic, I run home and look it up. It means “Repair.” Probably in another week or so I’ll figure out what they repair. It’s slow work.
Being unplugged from the matrix goes beyond language, even the most routine protocols– buying something, ordering from a menu, asking for directions, greeting a stranger– require acts of courage and self-degradation. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to search for my meals in dumpsters. But being unplugged makes me more aware of the tsunami of unreality that we routinely swim through: artificial flavoring, special effects, staged events, small talk, shtick, spin, come-ons, plastic, genetic engineering, reality shows, Fox News, theme parks, movies, political campaigns, TV evangelists, makeup, steroids, performances, taped performances, reruns of taped performances. Where does it all end, is it a good thing or a bad thing, and why do I love it so much?