Unaligned Planets and Crossed Stars
It’s Sunday night and I just returned from the third annual AUA School of Engineering picnic. The students (and some of the faculty) had to be coaxed into going this year because the previous two picnics weren’t well organized. That’s an understatement. In both cases they simply loaded 80 people into a couple of busses and spent the next few hours aimlessly driving around the countryside looking for a place to spread out. In one instance they set up in a meadow owned by a farmer who became irate when he discovered 80 people trampling down his prime grazing grass. They had to flee back to the busses while throwing money over their shoulders.
Things got off to a bad start today when one of our busses broke down a couple of miles out of town. We crammed some of the passengers from that bus into the working bus and left the others to wait by the side of the road for a replacement to show up.
As we neared the site the driver had to ask someone for directions. That didn’t make me nervous, but the response was a little unsettling. We were told to stay put and that a man on a horse would soon show up to lead us the rest of the way. As promised, five minutes later a guy on a horse showed up, told us to follow him, and galloped away!
This year’s picnic was at Tsaghkadzor (Gorge of the Flowers), which used to be the training center for the Soviet Winter Olympics team. A rusting statue of a nude female figure holding a globe marks the entrance to the site. She was barely visible through the weeds. Her nipples looked like metal hockey pucks.
The ski lift was running, so we rode it to the top of the mountain. There were a few patches of snow and the view of the gorge was … well it was gorgeous. On the way up I noticed a family of shepherds living on the ski slopes in a yurt. You sure wouldn’t see that in Squaw Valley.
Eventually the other bus showed up and everybody had a great time. Next year I’m sure they won’t have any trouble getting people to sign up.
At the end of the day the bus dropped us off in front of AUA. I decided to take the long way home via Bagramian Avenue because it was shadier than my usual route. This route takes me past the embassies of South Korea, United Kingdom, China, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. It also takes me by the presidential palace and Parliament.
I noticed that police in front of Parliament were clearing the road of traffic. I could hear sirens in the distance. I wondered what was going on. In 1999 gunmen screaming that wealthy import barons were “drinking the blood of the nation” burst into Parliament, murdered eight members, and wounded six others. Instinctively, I reached for my camera and snapped a picture of 10 speeding police cars escorting an SUV into the entrance.
I continued to amble down the road snapping pictures of amusing sights. I was blocks away from Parliament when a police car pulled off the road right in front of me. I didn’t think much of it; cars here act like pedestrians simply don’t exist. I walked on, but a few seconds later I was surrounded by police. Perhaps they were police. They looked much bigger and much more menacing than the cops I have seen here, and they were definitely better armed than ordinary cops. Maybe they were KGB, I thought, or whatever replaced the KGB in Armenia after Soviet Union collapsed. (We often eat at a falafel stand across the street from the old KGB headquarters and watch humorless-looking men go in and out past heavily armed guards.)
The headman was barking something at me in Armenian. I asked if he spoke Angliyski. Nyet. He asked if I spoke Russkie. I flipped through my mental rolodex of Russian vocabulary: house, cat, vodka. Nyet, I replied. Then he gestured to my camera. I knew exactly what the problem was. He seemed to be gesturing for me to get in the car, so I quickly turned the camera on and showed him the snapshots I took of my friends stuffing their faces at today’s picnic. When I got to the police escort photo, I carefully deleted it in front of him. This made him happy. He and the other heavies took turns shaking my hand, then sped away.
I was curiously calm throughout the whole incident. I know that if I die here it won’t be at the hands of the KGB. Instead, either I’ll fall off my balcony while hanging the laundry in my underwear, or I’ll get run over while crossing the street.
Pedestrians are entirely on their own when crossing the street here. Crossing is done one lane at a time. Readers who have played Frogger might be able to get some idea of what it’s like. It’s commonplace to see eight or nine people standing on the white lines between lanes of speeding cars and busses, trying to be two-dimensional.
I had my first Russian lesson last week. Twice per week a dark, exotic Russian-Armenian woman will come to my office and we will spend two hours making funny noises. Right now I’m struggling with the letter “bI”. I know, it looks like two letters, but it isn’t. The closest thing in English is the “i” at the beginning of “ick”. But there’s also a funny throat thing that happens, making it sound more like that noise Lucille Ball used to make when she knew Ricky was going to come home and beat the crap out of her for filling his bongos with whip cream. In my first lesson I learned how to say “Ivan home? Da, Ivan home.” “Water here? Nyet, water there.” Water is easy to remember, it’s “vodka” without the “k”.
My first lesson didn’t help me with the KGB, nor did it help me explain to Maya, my landlady, that the touchtone phone she gave me so I could call home was really a pulse tone phone with buttons on it. It did come in handy a few days ago, however. I was having one of those days that can only be explained by resorting to astrology. The day started when I noticed that along with my cell phone, my traveler’s checks were gone. I don’t know when they disappeared, but I suspect it happened one day a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t shut my door properly. I’m not too worried about it, even I can’t cash those damned checks here, and when I got to work I had an email from Laura saying that Verizon shut off our phones because I forgot to pay the bill. There was also an email saying that a friend never got a $300 check I sent them, and another email from San Jose State complaining about the half-assed job I did keeping track of my Sri Lanka expenses last January. My lecture started 15 minutes late because I forgot to bring the socket adapter. I also dropped my wireless mouse, but it seems okay now. That night when I got home I noticed a musty smell as soon as I opened the door. My eyes were drawn upwards. The ceiling in my entry hall and my bathroom were sagging under the weight of water. I ran next door, banged on Maya’s door, and screamed in Russian: “Water home! Water home!”
It turns out the upstairs neighbor left a faucet running. Maya’s son, Raphael, speaks English, so I asked him if insurance would cover the damage or if they would have to sue their neighbor. Armenia is a new, barely functional country, he said. There is no insurance here. No home insurance, no car insurance, no health insurance. Also, the courts don’t work, but it doesn’t matter because no one has any money to sue leave alone to pay if sued.
Don Knuth gave his much anticipated lectures last week, collected his accolades, and departed. One lecture was called “The Joy of Illustration,” in which Don spent two hours showing us every diagram he ever made. I think there might have been some in there that he made in the first grade. The other was called “Literate Programming.” It was supposed to show how a program could look like an essay, but the size of the font was too big, so the computer inserted random line breaks into the program making it look more like a crossword puzzle.
Barry and Armen are also leaving this week. Next week I’ll have to start all over making friends.
By chance we all ended up at Poplova a couple of nights ago for drinks. Poplova is a jazz club/cafe overlooking a pool with fountains. It’s Armen’s favorite place. Barry and I like it because it has an entertaining menu written in Armenian, Russian, and English. The menu is divided into sections: Salats (sic), Starters, Main Courses, Deserts (sic), and Drinks. It also has a Cigarettes section, which isn’t too surprising; cigarettes are the lubricant that keeps this society from skidding into the abyss.
One of the drinks listed is called a “Blow Job.” In fine print it says, “Everyone likes them.” “Pork shops” and “Special meat” appear as main courses. You’ll find cheese burgers listed in the “Salats” section. You will also find “Jewish Salad” listed there. The ingredients are Dutch cheese, garlic and mayonnaise. Not sure how this makes it Jewish. None of the salads list lettuce as an ingredient. I have yet to find lettuce in the grocery store. Cabbage yes, lettuce no.
The “Desert” menu is the best. It includes jerk, olives, Pringles, physkgs, and gum. We think “jerk” is “jerky.” Pringles are a popular item. The waiter pops a fresh can at your table like he’s opening a champagne bottle, then makes a big fanfare of pouring them in a tight circle on a silver tray. We don’t know what “physkgs” are.